Your World: Biotechnology & You

Henry’s typical morning: He eats a bowl of cornflakes while Sarah, his sister, scans the headlines and his dad starts the laundry. Meanwhile, his mother gives antibiotics to the baby and vitamins to everyone else to keep them healthy. When they see the school bus roll up, Henry and Sarah will dash aboard. Nature inspires biotechnology’s improvements in production and variety of goods. Counterclockwise from hand: Cornflakes, a spider’s silk-spinning glands, oil-eating Pseudomonas microbes, barnacles, corn, sea sponges, diatom.

The scenario above could easily be from 20 years ago as this morning.

But today, Henry’s clothes are made with three kinds of enzymes, and his cornflakes contain bioengineered corn, which requires less pesticide to grow than conventional corn.

Genetically engineered bacteria might have helped process the paper the news is printed on, greatly reducing environmental pollution. Most laundry detergent contains enzymes to get out tough stains, and specially selected and designed bacteria can help manufacture some vitamins and antibiotics, replacing laborious and expensive chemical synthesis. And the school bus may someday start running on “biofuel” harvested by microbes from agricultural waste.

All these advances come through biotechnology. Many more will be available soon, from designer clothes made from corn to medical devices made by microbes.

Biotechnology is the use and modification of living organisms or their products for commercial purposes. Industrial biotechnology uses and changes living organisms to aid in manufacturing. Everyone’s family—including yours—is already benefiting from industrial biotech.

Environmental biotechnology helps clean up the wastes traditional manufacturing methods produce (see “Clean Sweep”). Scientists can inject microbes into the ground to clean up or deactivate groundwater pollution. This process, called bioremediation, modifies bacteria that naturally break down toxins so we can clean up chemical spills, waste dumps, and even radioactive waste sites faster and more efficiently than without their help.

But even these uses will pale when compared with developments likely to come to pass in the next decade or two.

  • Spider silk is stronger than steel, and unlike nylon, is not made of fossil fuels. One company has made it possible for goats to express a spider silk protein in their milk. The protein is then extracted to manufacture “BioSteel” fibers, which the company hopes to use in medical sutures (stitches), bulletproof vests, and other products.
  • Barnacles produce a superstrong glue that holds them tightly to rocks. Unlike most other glues, it dries underwater. Barnacle-derived glues may find uses in sealing teeth against cavities or mending broken bones.
  • Sea sponges make fibers that carry light just like today’s high-tech fiberoptic cables, only they don’t break as easily. Can these fibers be used to make the next generation of cables?
  • The genetic secrets behind the highly intricate patterns produced by microscopic sea creatures called diatoms might be useful for micromanufacturing computer chips, medical devices, and other complex structures.
  • A wealth of energy is locked up in agricultural waste, such as manure and corn stalks. By treating the stalks with enzymes such as cellulase, they can be broken down into simple sugars. Researchers hope to develop faster, tougher, and more efficient enzymes, producing sugars that will be the raw materials for chemicals currently made from oil, including synthetic fibers and many plastics. Most exciting is the potential for creating biofuels—plant-derived fuels that will power the vehicles of the next decade, including the yellow school bus Henry’s children will ride.

Combining biotechnology with building or manipulating matter at a molecular level— resulting in nanobiotechnology—offers the potential of extremely clean, precise manufacturing at a molecular level.

Industrial biotechnology is poised to change the way hundreds of things are manufactured and to do so with less damage to the environment than today’s technologies. So read on to find out how industrial biotechnology is becoming more and more a part of your world.