Cutting-edge innovations in biotechnology have the potential to significantly impact human health, agriculture and the environment. Scientists are rapidly developing new goods and services by using techniques founded in molecular biology and genetics research to manipulate organisms. For centuries, farmers have relied on scientific information to breed animals and grow crops with desirable traits; even the use of yeast to make bread and alcohol required an understanding of biological makeup of fungus. Today, pharmaceuticals are hailed as the world's leading biotech industry.
According to BIO, the world's largest biotechnology organization, the biotech industry has exploded since it emerged during the early 1970s and has grown even more in recent years. Health care biotech revenues from publicly traded companies in the U.S. rose from $8 billion in 1992 to $58.8 billion in 2006. By the end of 2006, there were 1,452 biotechnology companies in the U.S. alone, employing over 180,000 people. The industry is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). A solid business model as well as innovative research are critical for biotech companies to thrive in the competitive market.
What Is Genomics?
Genomics is the study of all the genetic material in an animal, plant or microbe. One of the most famous genomics endeavors is known as the Human Genome Project. The goal of this research is to uncover the human genetic code in hopes of finding the origins of certain conditions and behaviors. In addition to human DNA, scientists are investigating the genetic composition of other animals, plants, bacteria, viruses, funguses, insects and nematodes (microscopic parasites sometimes called "roundworms") to generate innovative products and techniques. The vast amount of data being collected through genomic research has led to the relatively new field of bioinformatics which allows scientists to store, analyze, compare and apply this information.
Implications of Genomics
After discovering which genes lead to desired traits in an organism as well as those that result in undesirable conditions, scientists can alter the DNA to produce new crop varieties, pharmaceuticals, vaccines and industrial chemicals. The application of genomics allows scientists to do everything from engineering the genetic sequence of rice to boost its Vitamin A content for those living in Third World countries to creating fruits and vegetables that provide more economic benefits as a result of their size and shipping capabilities. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) states that biotech and genomics can also impact agriculture by improving crop yields and quality, developing stress-tolerant crop varieties, managing invasive pests and diseases and providing solutions to increased threats to biosecurity and toxins in the environment. Research in pharmacogenomics is allowing scientists to study patients' genetic composition and then use the information to design drugs tailored to a specific person's unique DNA. Potential benefits of pharmacogenomics are more effective therapies, advanced screening for disease, more accurate methods of determining dosages, fewer incidences of dangerous side-effects or negative interactions with other conditions and medications and a decrease in the overall cost of health care.
Although scientists argue that biotech innovation presents benefits to health, agriculture and the environment, the practice has raised ethical concerns in the scientific community over the access of data as well as public concerns over the use of genomic information. According to an article in Science (February 15, 2002), Mitchell Sogin of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, blocked public access to a federally supported DNA website after he learned that a colleague published a paper using sequence information uncovered by his laboratory. This situation (and others like it) has posed the question of how much control researchers should have over their findings. Cloning has met public opposition as have bioengineered foods (sometimes referred to as "Frankenfoods"), especially in Europe. The technique has sparked activist groups that intend to destroy altered crops and ban genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Despite the controversies surrounding bioethics, genomics will continue to impact innovation in the biotech industry. "I see genomics impacting biotech innovation in two ways," said Joseph Sucic, Ph.D., an associate professor of molecular biology at the University of Michigan---Flint. "First, it has the potential to illuminate possibilities for new drug design. As mutations linked to disease are identified, the consequences of those mutations for protein structure can be elucidated, and that in turn can lead to 'rational drug design' to target the mutant protein. This has already been done for several types of cancer, and I suspect that it will become more and more common. "Second, I think you will see more diagnostic tests developed for mutations that can cause or predispose disease conditions. This has enormous potential impact on health care costs because this kind of 'screening' could be helpful in early detection of diseases like cancer. This is also already being done, perhaps most famously, for mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that predispose individuals to the development of breast and ovarian cancer. Innovation in this area could lead to a genetic screening 'panel,' with many possible mutations identified in a single test, much like what is currently done for blood work".
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Science article highlighting issues over genomic data
USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service