When Gregor Johann Mendel, an Agustinian monk in Moravia (today, a historic region of the Czech Republic) started studying his vegetables instead of eating them, he had no idea of the revolution he would ignite over 150 years later. As a result of his experiments, Mendel was able to pronounce the laws of heredity, which later became the theoretical basis for modern genetics.
Today, genetics and biotechnology are nothing short of a revolution. If these fields haven’t captured your attention yet, you might be in for a rude awakening. Just as computer literacy became one of the key concerns regarding employability towards the end of the twentieth century, knowledge of genetics and biotechnology will be a must for professionals seeking employment in fields as diverse as material sciences, information technology, energy, and, of course, medicine, biology, and the life sciences.
An understanding of genetics and biotechnology starts with an understanding of cells – the structural and functional building blocks of all living organisms. The simplest living organism is comprised of one cell. Humans, on the other hand, are comprised of approximately 100,000,000,000,000 cells!
If you were to visit the nucleus of one of your cells, you would find in it a long double-helix molecule (DNA for deoxyribonucleic acid) made up by an array of four chemical bases: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C). Further study would reveal that the pattern or sequence of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs is neither fixed nor random. What scientists have discovered is that the particular sequence of these 4 bases defines an interesting code. This code comprises the biological instructions to build and maintain a human being!
The mapping of the human genome – the full set of “instructions” – was a very difficult task, completed just 4 years ago. Part of the difficulty arose from the fact that only 10% of the As, Ts, Gs, and Cs found in our DNA are actual instructions. The discrete sequences of code that comprise this 10% are called genes, and together (about 30,000 genes) they form the human genome. The other 90% of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs are thought to consist of non-coding regions whose functions are currently obscure.
Once scientists equated the sequence of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs to information, a whole new realm of possibilities emerged. Upon discovering what the sequences of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs in a gene meant, scientists focused their research how to manipulate these instructions to produce desired results.
For example, we know that the human body already fixes parts of itself everyday by re-growing body parts or fighting off invaders. Through therapeutic cloning, some day we will be able to rebuild a defective pancreas incapable of producing insulin, by correcting its defective genetic code. Scientists will know which As, Ts, Gs, and Cs they need to change to produce the corrected instruction-set.
And this is just scratching the surface. When genetic research is combined with research in the fields of energy, material sciences, and information technology, the spectrum of possibilities is mind boggling.
For example, the fields of bioinformatics and computational biology emerge as biologists, computer scientists, and information technology specialist merge to form a single discipline with the purpose of creating a database of biological information and to develop tools that can equip researchers with new algorithms and statistics to analyze and interpret biological information.
The fields of cognitive computing, genomics, and material sciences come together to explore the possibility of bio-interactive materials; materials that react intelligently to different biological conditions. This research is opening new possibilities in the development of next-generation artificial organs.
The capacity to create molecules with customized instruction-sets to produce a specific material or compound opens the possibility for molecular manufacturing. This field brings together research in nanotechnology, smart materials, and advanced analytics.
Biofuel Production Plants may eventually make oil rigging obsolete. This technology merges research in energy generation, fuel farming, and bio-environment management.
Bionics is another field being influenced by developments in wireless computing, sensors, microelectronics, mobile power, and material sciences.
It is difficult to find a segment of our economy that will be exempted of the implications of genetic and biotechnology research. The nature of fuels, medicines, agriculture, chemicals, cosmetics, and computers will change dramatically as a result of this revolution. Welcome to the biotechnology economy.
If the idea of some of these developments makes you uncomfortable, I suggest that you get interested, get literate, and get involved. You may not have been aware of it, but you were part of the digital revolution that invaded our planet during the second half of the twentieth century. As a result of that revolution, 93% of everything spoken, written, and sung last year was not in English, Chinese nor Spanish, but in binary! Computers and the transmission of digital information – be it through a phone call, a CD playing on your car, a text document being sent via email or fax to a friend, or a DVD movie being enjoyed at home – have become ubiquitous.
The genetic and biotechnological revolution is here, not only to stay, but to transform the way we think, the way we work, and the way we live. It is the revolution of the twenty first century. As usually is the case with scientific and technological issues, the most vocal tend to be the most ill informed. Ask someone defiantly opposed to cloning and to stem-cell research to explain what he is actually against of, and what you, and with some luck he, will find out is that he really doesn’t know.
As this new bio-tech economy develops, countries all over the world are making genetics and biotechnology a key priority in their economic development platforms. Bio-tech research and development parks and incubators are popping up in Singapore, Taiwan, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, United Kingdom, Australia, Israel, and, of course, United States. Typical economic development budgets for this sector are measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Puerto Rico cannot sit back and wait for the next wave. This is the next wave. So, whether you’re in government, the private sector, or in the academy, at the expense of repeating myself, here’s my call for action: get interested, get literate, and get involved. You’ll be doing yourself a favor, and you’ll be doing Puerto Rico a favor.