Closing thoughts

A recent newspaper headline reads Conquest of disease far from complete. It was a droll understatement, I thought, on a par with Sisyphus approaches final stretch of mountain climb. In other words, it illustrates a dangerously false way of thinking about ill health as a threat we're on our way (albeit slowly) to eliminating once and for all. The enthusiastic quest to vanquish disease is a common, if unconscious, thread in much of what is written about medical biotechnology. Given the...

Pests and diseases

Take a field of rye and watch what happens when the plants are infected with a fungus. The fungus sweeps through the field and plants die. But not all of them. The question is why does one plant succumb to a fungal disease while a second plant growing near it resists Researchers have found that, in many cases, the difference between resistance and susceptibility is simply the rate of the plant's response. If a plant can respond to the first attack of fungi rapidly, then it can resist further...

Profiting from the poor

The quest for unknown organisms with useful properties has sent many bioprospectors to the world's tropical forests, and prompted others to study the agricultural and medical practices of indigenous cultures. The fruits of their research can bring large profits to the few biotech companies that develop them into products, but the countries where the discoveries are made are unlikely to get much in return. The transfer of valuable resources from poor countries to rich ones is nothing new. But...

The voyager and the monk

Why are there so many different types of organisms in the world What makes a particular organism, such as a cat, produce more cats and not, say, dogs Why do some kittens in a litter look just like their mother while others don't Answers to questions such as these came from two brilliant and original thinkers of the 19th century Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel. These two men set off an explosion of ideas and debates that rumble on today, and are still felt in some of the controversy surrounding...

Diseases and pollution

The dense populations, genetic uniformity, and stress found on commercial fish farms make them a paradise for bacteria and viruses. Where large commercial aqua-culture operations grow and spread, so, too, do many infectious diseases. The threat of disease may, in fact, be the biggest factor limiting the development of aquacul-ture worldwide. Many millions of dollars are at risk in countries like Japan and Taiwan, where intensive aqua-culture systems can produce over 2,000 kg ha of shrimp...

Medicines from plants

Another fruitful source of natural medicines is plants. Many have already proved their value and there is a huge untapped potential for further discoveries, since more than 90 percent of the world's half million plant species have never been tested for their pharmaceutical value. Only 120 prescription drugs worldwide are based on extracted plant products. Taxol, an anticancer drug made from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, is a recent and much-publicized example of a valuable plant-derived...

Gene expression

I've talked about genes until now as if the mere presence of a given gene in a cell is enough to make the cell carry out that gene's instructions. If you think about it, that obviously can't be true. Every cell in your body has the same genes, but the cells aren't all alike. Genetic potential isn't the same as genetic fate. Every cell has far more genes than it uses, and only a proportion of the genes are actually turned on, or expressed, at any one time, making one cell a heart cell and...

Golden harvest

There may be gold in them thar hills, but its shine quickly grows dimmer when you add up the cost of labor and equipment needed to extract it, and the pollution created in the process. While Hollywood movie heroes may turn up gold nuggets with only a little light panning, a typical gold mining operation must go through a ton of rock, sand, or gravel to end up with about l 50th of an ounce of gold. And digging or dredging out the ore is only the beginning. As well as being one of earth's...

New parts for old

If we view the body as an assembly of parts, it doesn't seem odd when we treat faulty or worn-out parts by replacing them. Physicians first achieved limited success doing this as far back as the 1800s, grafting pieces of fresh skin onto burn victims, but it wasn't until well into the 20th century that scientists discovered the secret to transplanting entire organs. Organ transplants were a psychological as well as a surgical breakthrough, a step towards understanding the body by literally...

A case study tryptophan

Tryptophan is a naturally occurring amino acid, used for over 15 years in dietary supplements and infant formulas, and as a treatment for a number of conditions including depression, obesity, and insomnia. In late 1989, it was connected with a sudden outbreak of a debilitating syndrome that resulted in dozens of deaths in the U.S. and caused a variety of adverse effects in as many as 5,000 people. Immediately following the unexpected epidemic, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)...

Internet Resources

You can find plenty of information about biotechnology on the internet by using a search tool such as Yahoo, Lycos, or Alta Vista. Simply enter the words biotechnology or genetic engineering or a more specific topic that interests you. The following are also good starting points for a wide range of information. This interactive site is run by Indiana University as an educational resource and includes a biotechnology dictionary. Operated by Access Excellence, this educational site includes...

Farming the seas

One of the most talked-about uses of the sea is for raising fish, mollusks, crustaceans, algae, and other edible marine organisms in captivity or semi-captivity. Readers who have heard for years about the importance of fish farming to feed a growing human population can be excused for raising skeptical eyebrows on hearing of it yet again. Although specialized operations for growing seafood have been established in many coastal regions around the world, the industry itself hasn't grown as fast...

Microbes clean up

Broadly speaking, environmental biotechnology includes any applications that reduce pollution. Methods might use organisms to break down or sequester pollutants (sometimes making useful products on the way), or replace existing activities that pollute with ones that don't. The concept isn't totally new. A traditional example is the septic field, sewage so that only harmless breakdown products are released into waterways. Microbes were first used to treat industrial wastewater as early as the...

The beginnings of gene therapy

The story of the race to carry out gene therapy is engagingly told in the book Altered Fates, written by two prizewinning journalists, Jeff Lyon and Peter Gorner. Like James Watson's 1968 book, The Double Helix, the account makes interesting reading not only for its descriptions of important scientific discoveries, but also for its portaits of the personalities involved, and its revelations about the behind-the-scenes politics of high-profile scientific research. The steps leading to the first...