The new Biotechnology

This year, at the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos, Switzerland, many business, political leaders, and scientists have discussed about what is the biggest challenge that facing the world today? Some people believe it is food due to the population increase in many developing countries. The question ishow to feed 7 billion people in this world today? However, other people believe it is climate change due to greenhouse gas from manufactures, automobiles etc.. The question is how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions when the demand for more manufacturing products and cars are increasing significantly? Another group of people believe the biggest challenge is diseases such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, etc. The question is how to save lives by eliminating these diseases? Whatever the challenge is, the important thing is to find the solution for these problems.

Today the world population is expected to increase 38% by 2050, from 7 billion to 9.4 billion. There is an unbalance in population distribution due to aging and low birthrate in developed countries (i.e., The U.S, Canada, Russia, Western European countries, and Japan) but under-developing countries in Africa and South Asia are experiencing significant increase in birthrate. This threatens the economic stability and social structure of many countries. The needs is becoming more critical with the decrease supply of oil, gas, limited agriculture lands for food production, and a scarcity of clean water due to impact of climate change. At the same time, the world is facing an increasing in deathly diseases such as tuberculosis, cancers, HIV/AIDS and many more. Most news media coverage focused their attentions to global economic issues, few paid attention to an interesting conclusions by a small group of scientists that some solutions can be found in the advancement of Biotechnology.

Biotechnology is not new but current approach is only exploring a small segment of many potential uses and benefits of it. Many education programs in Biotechnology are still teaching what scientists called “The classic Biotechnology” based on laws of nature discovered in the 17 and 18th century. In the past twenty years, with major breakthrough in cellular biology and human genomes, research scientists have found new ways to solve certain major issues using new biotechnology applications that they called “The new Biotechnology”. This new approach has many huge potentials:

Agricultural applications of biotechnology have created more food supply by increasing crop yield, reducing crop diseases. For example, through modern biotechnology corn plants can resist some diseases, resulting in healthier plants, more corn for food and fuel without using insecticide applications. There are thousands of new crops are being created, enough to feed the world for many years. For example, some rice crops can be harvest in few months, instead of a year. Some can grow with minimum water or at extreme temperature.

New founded medicines have helped reduce the impacts of many diseases such as multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, and improving life expectancy for those suffering from them. For other diseases, including cancers and hereditary conditions, important new diagnostic tools leverage genetic testing and other biomarkers can help medical doctors determine whether a patient is likely to respond to a medication and choose the right dosage. Today, researchers are using genetic information to develop new cures for cancer, including therapeutic vaccines, and personalized medicine to help the right patients get the right treatment at the right time. Promising new work on malaria, tuberculosis, and dengue fever could prove the key to developing vaccines for cure these deadly diseases.

The development of bio-fuels and other renewable fuels has helped enhance the energy availability while reducing dependence on oil. New biodegradable plastics are reducing the need for landfills. New manufacturing processes leveraging biotechnology reduce waste, minimize water use, prevent pollution from harmful chemicals, and reduce the generation of greenhouse gases. For example, using bio fuels cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 52% or more.

While progress has been made to improve food supply, reduce pollution, improve health treatments many positive improvements are being explored and soon will be available. Through biotechnological innovations, scientists are in the process of developing salt-tolerant and drought-resistant crops (Imagine that you can grow rice in area near salt water or in wet sand). There are several new applications to improve the nutritional value of food and the health of livestock production are being proposed.

Most scientists believe Biotechnology will create “technology revolution” that will change many economies from a petrochemical-based economy to a more green technology focused or bio-processing-based economy. This will lead to many new industries, new companies, new jobs, new prosperities, giving many countries the opportunity to move up and eradicate poverty by leverage their local biotechnology resources. However, today there are few universities that focus on this area. If and only if they have the vision to start a new good biotechnology education program.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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