Over the past fifty years, human progress has been tied to the advances we make in science and technology. In fact, we can identify specific periods of time by the particular sciences which were hottest at the time- in the 60s to the late 70s it was aerospace, and from the 80s till the 2000s it was information technology. In future, however, the field that will change our lives most will be biotechnology.
Now, lets see how. First, in agriculture. Biotech enables plants to yield more food for human consumption, both by directly increasing yield and making plants more pest reisistant. This means that rising food demand can be supported by fewer plants, which means less forests need to be cut down for agricultural space. Obviously, more forests are better, because they sequester the world’s carbon emissions. At the same time, it provides water-catchment areas that ensures rivers flow even in times of drought, further boosting agriculture.
Mark Lynas, author of “High Tide” says 30% of the world’s land could become unfarmable in the next few decades, so maximizing production in existing land is key.
Plus, biotech would also help in the medical field, especially in cheapening and speeding up drug production. Genetically modified yeast and E. Coli bacteria are used to produce synthetic insulin or antibiotics. Thanks to medical biotech, we now have diagnostic devices that define suitable patients for certain biopharmaceutical products. For example, the drug Herceptin was approved with a matching diagnostic test to treat breast cancer in women whose tumour cells are detected to express the HER2 protein.
Still, the coolest application of medical biotech is the one known as pharming. In pharming, genes containing code to produce pharmaceuticals are transplanted into a host animal or plant that ordinarily does not have that gene. As a result, the host species then actually PRODUCES the medical product, which can then be refined into a marketable drug.
SemBioSys Genetics Inc., which produces insulin in this method using transgenic safflower, claims that insulin produced in this manner is 40% cheaper than normally produced insulin.
Last, but perhaps most relevant to our time is the applications of biotechnology in industry, known as white biotechnology. Other than biodegradable plastic production, the main projected application of white biotech is the fermentation of organic matter to produce alternative fuels. In the ethanol industry, biotech could single-handedly turn the industry green, as enzymes could break down cellulose in all types of plants to produce cellulosic ethanol, which is a far better alternative to current ethanol which requires refining the sucrose in corn and sugarcane.
They rely heavily on fossil-fuel inputs, so much so that by some estimates, they produce more carbon than the amount of fossil fuels they replace. And they require the loss of large areas of forests, which, when cut down, release carbon as well. Plus, to harvest sugarcane, workers burn the field first to make the cane easier to cut. Need I say more?
And even better, Thai firm Flexoresearch has found a way to use a series of blended enzymes to remove paper pulp from laminated paper (the kind in milk cartons and cigarette boxes), which produces paper and plastic to be recycled.
The potential applications of biotechnology, whether green, red or white, would transform our world significantly. It would lift millions out of poverty, stop the wastage of energy, and above all, sever our ties to fossil fuels, maybe forever.