Friday, August 27, 2010


No, B is not a superhero, nor is it the initials of a certain American politician. It does stand for a cause which I'm quite interested in, and hope to join when I'm older and have the necessary qualifications.

B- biotech. And yes, it can save the world, if we let it.

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 absorb (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.
While genetically modified food's impact does need to be further studied, if no scientific evidence that they harm the environment is found, it does need to be allowed and encouraged. Too many people die of hunger each day.

Mark Lynas author of "High Tide" says 30% of the world's land could become unfarmable in the next few decades, so maximizing what's there 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.
Medical biotechnology stands to treat countless diseases, especially those involving bacterium and viruses.

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.

Last, but perhaps most relevant to our times is the applications of biotechnology in industry, known as white biotechnology. 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.
How cellulosic ethanol is produced. Biotechnology would increase the speed and efficiency of the process, while reducing its' costs.

They rely heavily on fossil-fuel inputs, so much so that by some estimates, they produce more carbon than the amount of gas 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?

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.

This article is the first in a series on biotechnology. In the next one, we'll look at where the field is hottest, and what governments and companies are doing for it now.