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Biotechnology in Our Daily Lives

Biotechnology is simply the application of biological agents (algae, other microorganisms and cells, etc.) or parts of biological agents like genes or enzymes, for the production of biological compounds (such as drugs and industrial raw materials) or improvement of agricultural production. A great example of biotechnology is the fermentation process that results in beer, and this use of biotechnology goes way back thousands of years ago.


Today, science and engineering advances have resulted biotechnology being used in fields as diverse as naturally derived compounds used in cosmetics, preventive health treatments like vaccinations, and therapeutic medical approaches like targeted cancer therapy and the use of stem cells for regeneration of various organs, just to name a few uses in medicine. Food production in agriculture is another major use of biotechnology in our daily lives. While the use of biotechnological innovation will continue apace, some uses will engender criticism (GMO foods, for example), while others are likely to spur praise (such as treatments targeting specific diseases previously difficult or impossible to treat). Innovation continues at a rapid pace and many scientists see the future of biotech as extremely promising.


Obviously, the main characters of Zero Emissions, Michael, Dick, and Julia (JD) share the view of the enhancing possibilities for biotechnology in our lives. But beyond our fictional characters here's what leading experts have to say.


In 2013 the Global Agenda Council on Biotechnology, one of the global networks under the World Economic Forum (WEF), which is composed of the world's leading experts in the field of biotechnology, announced that the council had identified the "ten most important biotechnologies" which could help meet the rapidly growing demand for energy, food, nutrition, and health. These new technologies, the council said, also have the potential to increase productivity and create new jobs.


Following is their list taken from their report, although somewhat abbreviated and adapted. It's definitely worth thinking about and gives a good idea of how biotechnology is already being used in our daily lives and how it may be used in new ways in the future.


-- Bio-based sustainable production of chemicals, energy, fuels and materials. The key promising technology is biological synthesis; that is, bio-based production of chemicals, fuels and materials from plants that can be re-grown. (Think algae used for biofuel in Zero Emissions.)


-- Engineering sustainable food production. Although controversial, modern genetic modification of crops has supported growth in agricultural productivity. Properly managed, such crops have the potential to lower both pesticide use and tilling, which erodes soil.


-- Seawater based bioprocesses. Over 70% of the earth's surface is covered by seawater, and it is the most abundant water source available on the planet. But we are yet to discover the full potential of it. For example, halliophic bacteria capable of growing in the seawater can be engineered to grow faster and produce useful products including chemicals, fuels and polymeric materials.

-- Non-resource draining zero waste bio-processing. The sustainable goal of zero waste may become a reality with biotechnology. Advances in biotechnology are now allowing lower cost, less draining inputs to be used, including methane, and waste heat. These advances are simplifying waste streams with the potential to reduce toxicity as well as support their use in other processes, moving society progressively closer to the sustainable goal of zero waste.

-- Using carbon dioxide as a raw material. Biotechnology is poised to contribute solutions to mitigate the growing threat of rising CO2 levels. Recent advances are rapidly increasing our understanding of how living organisms consume and use CO2. By harnessing the power of these natural biological systems, scientists are engineering a new wave of approaches to convert waste CO2 and C1 molecules into energy, fuels, chemicals, and new materials. (Another way of thinking of Dick's idea in Zero Emissions.)

-- Regenerative Medicine. Regenerative medicine has become increasingly important due to both increased longevity and treatment of injury. Tissue engineering based on various biomaterials has been developed to speed up regenerative medicine. Combination of tissue engineering and stem cell technologies will allow replacements of damaged or old human organs with functional ones in the near future.

-- Rapid and precise development and manufacturing of medicine and vaccines. A global pandemic remains one of the most real and serious threats to humanity. Biotechnology has the potential to rapidly identify biological threats, develop, and manufacture potential cures. Leading edge biotechnology is now offering the potential to rapidly produce therapeutics and vaccines against virtually any target.

-- Accurate, fast, cheap, and personalized diagnostics and prognostics. Identification of better targets and combining nanotechnology and information technology it will be possible to develop rapid, accurate, personalized and inexpensive diagnostics and prognostics systems.

-- Bio-tech improvements to soil and water. Arable land and fresh water are two of the most important, yet limited, resources on earth. Abuse and misappropriation have threatened these resources, as the demand on them has increased. Advances in biotechnology have already yielded technologies that can restore the vitality and viability of these resources. A new generation of technologies: bio-remediation, bio-regeneration and bio-augmentation are being developed, offering the potential to not only further restore these resources, but also augment their potential.

-- Advanced healthcare through genome sequencing. It took more than 13 years and $1.5 billion to sequence the first human genome and today we can sequence a complete human genome in a single day for less than $1,000. When we analyze the roughly 3 billion base pairs in such a sequence we find that we differ from each other in several million of these base pairs. In the vast majority of cases these differences do not cause any issues but in rare cases they cause disease, or susceptibility to disease. Our understanding of such genetic variations together with their phenotypic consequences will increasingly drive medical research and practice. (This is already happening in targeted cancer therapy.)