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Biotechnology promises to heal, fuel and feed the world. At its simplest, biotechnology is technology based on biology - biotechnology harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet. Explore the international technology pipeline and get a glimpse of what tomorrow will be like.

April Fool's Joke or Reality

Ashraf Amlani - Thursday, September 30, 2010

April 1, 2050: The lights are low, the music soft, the ambience perfect. The waiter walks over and places your order of grilled salmon with mango salsa and corn salad in front of you. The aroma makes your mouth water and you reach for your fork. That scrumptious dinner is followed by a scoopful of vanilla ice-cream drizzled with hot chocolate fudge. As you savour the last of the dessert, it feels like heaven on earth, until your eyes turn to a small sign posted on the wall. You blink your eyes and pinch yourself to make sure you are not dreaming. The sign still reads “All our meals are prepared from 100% genetically engineered foods”.

It’s not so farfetched if you keep in mind a simple but significant reality: the demand for meat and other animal products has been growing with increasing urbanization and higher average incomes worldwide while water and land for agriculture is limited and increasingly scarce. The world population is estimated to be over 9 billion people in 2050 and it is inevitable that advances in biotechnology are going to play a critical role in ensuring food security for the masses. Let’s explore how the research conducted in labs today can feed the world of tomorrow. 

Genome Sequencing

With high-throughput sequencing centres opening up worldwide, there will soon be full genome sequences for everything imaginable, from bamboo to giraffes to strawberries. Headquartered in Shenzhen, China, BGI is a private institute that has the world’s largest next-generation sequencing capacity with 128 new Illumina HiSeq 200 genome sequencers. Having already sequenced the genomes for rice, cucumber, and the Great Panda, BGI is ambitiously moving on to other organisms to create a genomic tree of life. Increased genome sequences and an understanding of the genes they encode will allow companies to enhance the quality of the food they produce. In fact, both Mars and Hershey’s are supporting research for mapping out the DNA of cocoa bean trees. And while it may seem extremely manipulative, the strategy is a new approach to an age old concept: cross-breeding, i.e. breeding to produce offspring that share the favourable traits of both parents. While humans have crossbred cattle, sheep, llama, dogs and horses for centuries, genomics is allowing humans to select for organisms with favourable characteristics through a less time consuming and economically favourable process. In addition, DNA testing could be used to predict meat quality and disease resistance among livestock.

Genetic Engineering

Fruits and vegetables grown from genetically modified seeds have been available in North American markets since the early 1990s and include corn, tomatoes, sweet peppers, Hawaiian papaya, sugar cane, squash, soybean and rapeseed (canola). In most cases, the genes modified confer one or more of these attributes: insect resistance, viral resistance, herbicide tolerance, modified oil content, plant reproductive sterility or delayed ripening/softening. These advancements allow for decreased disease susceptibility, increased crop yield and reduced soil erosion from tilling, thus providing greater economic benefit to farmers. Increasing technological developments are bringing forth newer products from research centres around the globe. For instance, researchers in India have modified a potato to pack up to 60% more proteins than traditional varieties. Meanwhile at the University of Florida, lettuce modified with the insulin gene causes the human body to make its own insulin cells and potentially eliminates the need for those with Type 1 Diabetes to inject insulin.

Now, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is currently considering the first ever genetically engineered (GE) animal to ever enter the food and supply chain. Through technology originally developed at the University of Toronto and the Memorial University of Newfoundland, the AquaAdvantage® Salmon is engineered to grow to adult size in half the time needed by regular Atlantic salmon. This advancement provides a compelling economic benefit to fish farmers and diminishes the need for ocean pens. The FDA’s Veterinary Medicine Action Committee is expected to make their final decision in the next 60 days. GE beef, pork and other fish are amongst some of the other products that will soon be seeking federal approval.

A report by the Biotechnology Industry Organization eloquently summarizes the benefits of genetic engineered animal for public health:
“[GE animals]… are integral to the development of new diagnostic techniques and drugs for human disease while delivering clinical and economic benefits that cannot be achieved with any other approach. They promise significant benefits in human health and food security by enabling dietary improvements through more nutritious and healthy meat and milk. GE animals also offer significant human health and environmental benefits with livestock which are more efficient at converting feed to animal protein, and reducing waste production. Finally, GE will improve the welfare of the animal by imparting resistance to disease and enhancing overall health and well being.”

Artificial Meat

In vitro or cultured meat is an animal flesh product that has not been part of a complete living animal. Originally, in vitro meat arose out of NASA experiments to find improved forms of long-term food for astronauts in space. The first edible form was produced in 2000 where goldfish cells were adapted and grown to resemble fish fillets. Since then, many researchers have attempted to grow fully developed muscle from a starter culture of mammalian cells including a Dutch group that claimed to produce meat from pig cells in November 2009. While several projects are currently underway, no artificial meat has been approved for public consumption yet. PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has offered a $1 million prize to the first company that can bring lab-grown chicken meat to consumers by 2012. It is estimated that approximately 1 million chickens are killed every hour in the US for human consumption.

Through the simple examples discussed above, it is obvious that there is a tremendous potential for growth in the food biotechnology sector. For the farmer, reduced disease susceptibility means greater crop yield and, therefore, greater economic benefit. For the consumer, it may mean better nutritional value, flavour, aesthetic appeal and medicinal benefits. And yet, there is much scepticism and public fear regarding genetically modified food. Many countries including Zambia, Venezuela and Hungary have banned the import of genetically modified seeds. Are regulatory bodies, both nationally and internationally, taking sufficient precautionary measures to prevent disastrous outcomes due to genetically engineered foods?

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Nayel commented on 01-Oct-2010 11:15 AM
There's quite a hue and cry about "taking sufficient precautionary measures to prevent disastrous outcomes due to genetically engineered foods", and it has been raised for probably just as long as scientists have been able to genetically engineer foodstuff. What somehow never seems to come out in all this din is what these potential disasters are or atleast, where they lie. Selective breeding has been known to cause gene weakness and increase susceptibility to disease, and is being used with some precaution to prevent gene weakness from setting in. Something similar could apply to genetic engineering.

Can anyone shed any light on what potential disasters could lie ahead or are we doomed to running around like Chicken Little, screaming about the sky falling on our heads?
Anonymous commented on 29-Nov-2010 11:38 AM
A GM apple that doesnt brown when cut? Would you eat it?

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