Most Amazing Advances In Bio-Technology
It's hard to believe that what was once science fantasy is starting to shape and change lives. Cooperation between academic research and both public and private funding have led to a number of biotech innovations that will transform tomorrow's world. Here are some of the recent breakthroughs.
1. The Microbiome
While we may not like to hear it, our bodies are covered with bacteria. This microscopic ecosystem is known as the "microbiome". Our digestive tracts contain bacteria that help us to break down and process the food we eat. Dietary supplements and other products are now promising to deliver more "good" bacteria to our intestines. One research trend is the idea of using specific bacteria populations to treat digestive issues or for coping with special dietary requirements.
But that's only the beginning. Microbial organisms outnumber our cells by as much as 10 to 1. We've been raised to believe that the best way to deal with bacteria in our environment is strict cleanliness to kill the germs. But as studies continue, we are beginning to recognize that this may not be the optimal approach to health. Now we must consider the possibility that not all germs are harmful. Some may even be essential.
It has always been difficult to isolate any of these human-associated bacteria in a lab, but that's no longer the case. More advanced DNA techniques have led to metagenomics, which helps to track and analyze these microbes without the need for lab cultures. The National Institute of Health has launched a Human Microbiome Project to explore this invisible, and dynamic, microbial world. As we categorize the different beneficial and harmful bacteria and their effects, we may someday see a course of treatments that amount to managing and manipulating the tiny organisms we live with, both internally and externally.
2. Drought Tolerant Crops
With global warming and limited fresh water resources, many arid regions around the globe have trouble growing enough crops to provide food, either for themselves of livestock. Corn was one of the first crops to be manipulated by humans, and has become a staple around the world in that it provides maximum calories from minimum acreage. It stores well and serves many purposes. Thus it's one of the primary focuses of modern biotech efforts. The first generations of drought-tolerant corn are being grown in the Midwestern US. Bio-technology is beginning to help farmers become productive even in times of drought.
Conventional breeding techniques have always had such a goal, but involves identifying drought-tolerant strains and breeding them into common varieties for increasingly low water needs. Though this has had some success, it's ultimately a slow process with a limited gene pool. Plant reaction to environmental stresses is also very complex and fragile. But it's understood that plants can be manipulated to synthesize natural compounds such as sugar alcohols or proline for better retention of moisture, and the botanical hormone abscisic acid for reduced water loss.
The hope is that this genetically modified corn can be made available for planting in East Africa by 2017. There, more than 300 million people rely on corn as a dietary staple. The plan is to raise Africa's production of corn by 17 percent over the next few decades. The same process is also being explored for wheat, rice, and other crops vital to populations around the globe.
3. Cures for Aging
In the past, investors have poured millions into skin care, dietary, and medical treatments that had the potential to reduce the signs of aging. While better medical care, nutrition, and exercise awareness has dramatically prolonged life expectancy over what it was a few centuries ago, it's also a recognized fact that our human cells can only reproduce themselves so many times before they start dying off. This ushers in the typical signs of aging compromising metabolism and the immune system to higher risk of aging-related illness.
We are also aware that stress can weaken the system and contribute to the onset of depression, type-2 diabetes, and obesity. Some new research is being done on modifying these stress triggers within our own cells. This research has progressed to higher animals - though at present this involves mice, not humans. The process works by essentially flushing the body of cells that are old and stressed (called "senescent cells") to reduce the "aging" toxins they leave in our systems. It could begin combatting the effects of aging as early as middle age.
One of the leaders in this field is the respected Mayo Clinic, which has reported dramatic increases in the lifespans of laboratory mice, as well as lower instances of obesity and better heart and kidney function. The research they have published is so promising that a number of pharmaceutical and biotech firms have advanced interest in collaboration or funding of further research efforts.
4. Genetic Engineering
Mapping of the human genome has led to the realization that many diseases come from natural mutations or malfunctions within our genes. It may be possible to alter these genetic signals to nullify or even correct harmful genes. While the chemistry is understood, one of the challenges has been the problem of effectively delivering these corrected genes to the right part of the human body. As these techniques are becoming more effective, it becomes possible to treat genetic vulnerabilities to certain diseases with a single treatment.
It's possible to do this at any stage of life. DNA analysis can help to identify potential issues in infants or young children, who can undergo gene therapy so that these malfunctioning genes never become a problem. This is actually being done to some extent, but part of the problem is public resistance. The majority of people (around 70 percent) are not in favor of genetic manipulation of any kind, whether from religious, social, or health objections.
This is in part because of the potential for not curing but modifying our genetic structures. Genes controlling intelligence, musical talent, athletic prowess, and other traits are also beginning to look feasible. As studies continue, it may be possible for infants and even adults to be "made to order" by altering their genes. Science fiction has long since raised the possibility of individual supermen or an affluent ruling class that benefits from advanced genetic techniques. That's pure fiction. Long before it comes to that, we will share the benefits of medical treatments that directly affect our chromosomes.
Some of these new ideas can save lives and prolong youth. While the public remains resistant to even genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their diet, research will continue. The potential of biotechnology to overcome the limitations of every living thing on Earth is too promising, which means that advances in medicine and agriculture will continue.