The Future of DNA Technology: Transforming the Material World

Biotechnology is the selection or alteration of living organisms for human use. Its oldest forms are agriculture and animal husbandry: modifying the natural world to feed and clothe ourselves. Our ancestors also quickly figured out how to harness yeast to ferment alcohol and leaven bread. More recently, the discovery of penicillin, in 1928, ushered in a new era: the large-scale cultivation of microorganisms to produce antibiotics. But the modern biotechnology revolution really began when scientists learned how to transfer genes from one organism to another--such as adding the growth hormone gene to bacteria. Suddenly, it became possible to produce large quantities of pure human hormones, enzymes, antibodies, and other proteins. Many are now used as medicines. What will the future hold for this ancient technology made new? I believe that in this field, the past is prologue. Biotechnology will be used, on an increasingly large scale, to satisfy our fundamental needs: food, clothing, shelter, fuel, health, and a variety of material objects.

Basic needs. The principal application of biotechnology, I believe, will be for food, clothing, and shelter--the most essential human needs. Current agricultural methods require too much land, water, fertilizers, and pesticides to sustain the population of the 21st century, with its 10 billion additional inhabitants. Bioengineering will dramatically improve the yield and quality of crops and their resistance to drought, salt, heat, and pests, as well as eliminate the need for environmentally harmful fertilizers. Meanwhile, the nutritional value of foods will dramatically improve, and the land area needed to cultivate food fibers and wood will shrink. Natural ecosystems will have room to expand, and erosion from tillage will end. The protein value and diversity of plant foods will increase, allowing the substitution of plant for animal protein and conserving precious land, water, and energy resources. Agriculture, the oldest of our biotechnologies, will remain its single greatest use in the future.

Fuel. Biofuels powered our past. We used wood and charcoal to cook our food and warm our homes; the consumption of plants and animals fueled human and animal labor. For much of our past, no net carbon was released to the atmosphere, but in modern times the use of fossil fuels is causing a dramatic rise in atmospheric carbon levels. That's because the carbon dioxide in these fuels was removed from the atmosphere hundreds of millions of years ago and safely buried underground, where until recently it remained. Now levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide already exceed those of the last 50 million years of geologic history. Although we cannot predict the full consequences, they are quite likely to be dire. Biotechnology offers a way of returning to carbon-neutral energy. We will literally be able to grow our liquid fuels. They won't be like today's inefficient corn-based ethanol. Instead, they will probably come from saltwater aquatic microorganisms--bacteria, algae, and phytoplankton--altered to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide directly into diesel fuel, gasoline, or other useful hydrocarbons. I call this field constructive biology. Thanks to advances in deciphering the entire genetic codes of species, along with the ability to modify those codes, such organisms can serve as the source of carbon for both fuel and oil-and-coal-based polymers and other chemical materials. Our energy future will be green and safe.

Nanotechnology. The science and biology of very tiny things, a field called nanotechnology, will enable humans to create far smaller and more efficient materials. All earthly matter consists of atoms linked together into molecules. Virtually all of the materials that human beings now make comprise billions of atoms and molecules lumped together. In contrast, living systems can build minuscule functional parts, some with structures only a few atoms (or even one atom) thick. Moreover, these nanostructures assemble themselves into precise three-dimensional forms requiring no outside guiding force or hand. Living organisms are proof that nanostructures work. We can follow their lead. Indeed, the 21st century will bring a fundamental transformation of our ability to manipulate the nanoworld of atoms and molecules to our purposes. These new skills will far transcend the chemistry of the past. New generations of complex nanostructures will assemble themselves and aggregate with other nanostructures to create complex forms, which will then aggregate into large macrostructures with new and useful properties. It is too early to predict when this will happen, but I believe that the principles of biology, aided by biotechnology, will ultimately transform our entire material world. The benefits can be substantial. Much as waves of innovation have reduced the size of our industrial and consumer products, so too will this nanorevolution reduce the mass and complexity of the materials we use in daily life and in many of our manufacturing processes. Nanomaterials with precisely specified properties may replace most metals and ceramics in the future, allowing us to tread more lightly on our fragile planet.

Presented by

William Haseltine is a former professor at Harvard Medical School, where he researched cancer and HIV/AIDS. He is the founder of Human Genome Sciences, where he served as chairman and CEO, and the president of the William A Haseltine Foundation for Medical Sciences and the Arts. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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