Imagine if illnesses such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, AIDS, and heart diseases could be eradicated. Imagine if we could “solve the problem of death”, as Google attempts to do with their project Calico, a biotech startup focused on developing solutions for aging. Or imagine if pesticides became unnecessary and all our food could be organic due to a small change in the DNA of plants.
These examples might sound mad, but the current breakthroughs in biotechnology are placing these scenarios within our grasp. In a matter of years, they could become reality if we so wish.
For the scientists and entrepreneurs working in the field of biotechnology, our current biological struggles are a consequence of a lack of knowledge. Before we knew about the existence of bacteria and its connection to illnesses, a winter cold could be fatal and diseases such as tuberculosis could spread like a wildfire within no time. Our lack of knowledge turned us into victims of harmless diseases.
The same might be true now. Perhaps an unknown detail in our DNA is causing our bones to deteriorate, our organs to weaken, and our minds to get confused. Maybe we could solve all of these issues through a slight modification – like a friendly mutation.
Mutations happen all the time. They are an undeniable fact of life and what has made us survive for so long. But instead of waiting for a natural coincidence to take care of the problem of aging, we could help nature along. That is what the bioengineers are hoping to do.
Biotechnology for sustainability
The issue of solving death aside, biotechnology could help us along in many other areas to create a better and more sustainable world:
- Elon Musk’s plan to populate Mars is likely to require gene-modified crops that don’t take damage from space travel and thrive on our neighboring planet.
- The life quality of the elderly could be improved massively by minimizing the deteriorating results of aging.
- Reduction in food waste by prolonging the freshness and the durability of greens and dairy products.
- Organic materials used for houses and buildings could be made more earthquake resistant by increasing their elasticity and wearability.
- Infrastructure could be redesigned using self-repairing concrete to build roads and house foundations (not biotech strictly speaking, but using the same principles on non-organic materials).
Many promising biotech startups are emerging. Here are a small selection of exciting ones:
Immunicom is working on a non-drug cancer therapy, hoping to reduce bad side effects and increase the patients’ quality of life.
Cellink is producing 3D printers and bio-ink to print human organs to give everyone the opportunity of an organ transplantation.
Solar Foods creates protein-rich food made from electricity, air, water, and bacteria, which tastes similar to wheat flour but is 100 times more environmentally friendly.
The potential is huge, but of course, biotechnology is fundamentally challenging our understanding of life. If we are soon able to live forever – or at least a lot longer – we will need to rethink how society works and how we live.
Exciting days are ahead. If you feel inspired to learn more about it and to help co-create the future, have a look at these:
- Khan Academy’s course on Biotechnology offers an introduction to this field of science, including articles, videos, and exercises.
- In the podcast, the Long Run with Luke Timmerman, Luke Timmerman talks with biotech startup founders, pioneers, and entrepreneurs, discussing the latest breakthroughs, the biggest opportunities, and greatest challenges.
- Don’t Memorize’s YouTube series on Biotechnology, including topics such as genetic engineering, bioethics, and the applications of biotech.