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Biology of the future

Friday, April 30, 2021

Here continue our “Technologies of the Future” series and today let’s talk about the technologies that have become the mainstream of the 21st century: molecular biology and biotechnology.

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Molecular biology

General trends in technology development

Molecular biology is a branch of biology that studies biological processes at the level of biopolymers (nucleic acids, proteins, and their supramolecular structures). Since the mid-20th century, molecular biologists have learned to characterize and manipulate the molecular components of cells and organisms (DNA, RNA, and others).

Since DNA is a material carrier of genetic information, molecular biology has become much closer to genetics, creating molecular genetics. Virology also actively applies the methods of molecular biology and viruses are widely used as a research tool in molecular biology.

Bioinformatics is another interdisciplinary study in molecular biology since the amount of information required for processing and research is enormous. At the same time, for example, game mechanics began to be used in the study of the structure of proteins. A video game Foldit appeared in May 2008 that allows anyone interested (even without special education) to contribute to the study of molecular biology, making up the structure of proteins.

Research in molecular biology is exactly what scientists are hoping for in the development of a stem-cell vaccine against cancer: stem cells have enough similarities at the molecular level to trigger immunity against cancer cells. Since research is still in its early stages, this is not widely discussed.

Besides, there were 10 new immune systems in bacteria discovered in 2018. These are viruses that have been attacking bacterial cells for billions of years, giving new insights into bacterial mechanisms in the fight against viruses. And when we understand the mechanisms of such protection fully, we’ll be able to use them as tools for molecular biology.

In medicine, a combination of genetic and cell therapy (both are parts of molecular biology) allowed a Syrian boy suffering from a rare genetic disorder (epidermolysis bullosa nodosa), to get 80% new skin. The Scientist magazine called this case a breakthrough in the study of the mechanisms of skin regeneration at the cellular level, which opens new horizons for regenerative medicine.

Molecular biology, which was originally part of biochemistry, has made tremendous progress over the past half-century. Achievements in this branch of science are of great importance for the development of biomedicine, which, combined with the theoretical knowledge of clinical medicine, is the basis for the development of new promising methods of treating those diseases that were previously considered severe or incurable. Thus, “molecular scissors”, special molecules that remove alpha-amyloid plaques, are already being tested on animals. These plaques are a factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, and according to World Health Organization forecasts, 0.556% of the world’s population may be affected by this disease by 2030.

Molecular biology is the basis for the development of genetics and allows you to purposefully change the hereditary basis at the cellular, chromosomal and gene levels. In recent years, molecular biology has had powerful genetic research methods at its disposal, successfully working on the problems of overcoming disease, aging and death. In fact, the development of personalized medicine depends on the development of molecular biology. Preventing and understanding the mechanisms of hereditary diseases through the study of genetic diversity is another way in which molecular biology impacts society. It is thanks to the advances in molecular biology that it becomes possible to prevent 20% of infant mortality caused by congenital defects.

We should understand that molecular biology opens up opportunities not only for DNA modification but also for the creation of synthetic DNA fragments, which makes it possible to modify natural genes.

2017 marks a significant breakthrough in molecular biology. Two new “letters” were added to the genetic “alphabet.” To the four natural bases (adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine ©, and thymine (T)), scientists from the laboratory of Professor Floyd Romesberg at the Scripps Research Institute added two artificial bases — X and Y, which made it possible to create a protein using the six-letter alphabet. For 4 years of research on the basis of the bacterium E. coli, it was possible to breed a viable semi-artificial organism (if natural organisms are able to encode 20 amino acids, then with the help of six letters the modified bacterium can encode 152 amino acids). Such microorganisms can be used for the production of new proteins and enzymes, and in the longer term, they can influence the methods of diagnosis and treatment of human diseases.


Impact on society, economy and state

We can conclude that the influence of molecular biology is already large enough and will only increase over time. It can become the key to human immortality, change the food we eat, cleanse and regenerate soil, and our planet. At the same time, molecular biology can also become a formidable weapon, creating new organisms, not just their parts. Imagine that instead of the familiar coronavirus, the COVID-19 virus, humanity is faced with an artificial virus created using additional “letters” — in this case, the human body would be doomed.

If the last sentence scared you enough, then let’s look at the possibilities that molecular biology gives to society and people. Besides the already mentioned potentially achievable immortality, it is molecular biology in conjunction with genetics that can reduce infant mortality from congenital malformations, and it can also help to cope with cleansing the cells of an aging body from molecular debris.

Molecular biology will become the foundation of personalized medicine that will take into account all the nuances of your body at the molecular level for the most effective treatment. An increase in human life expectancy, in turn, can cause opposite trends in society: economic growth due to the fact that humanity will live longer and consume more, or economic decline due to depletion of resources (although in the second case the same molecular biology can come to the rescue, creating artificial or semi-artificial resources).




General trends in technology development

Biotechnology is an interdisciplinary industry that originated at the intersection of biology, chemistry and engineering. It allows the use of living organisms and biological processes in production. We also associate the solution of global problems of mankind, such as hunger, improving the state of health care, eliminating the lack of mineral resources, and the like with biotechnology.

Biotechnology applies the achievements of genetics, biochemistry, microbiology, and chemical technology to improve technological processes using the properties of microorganisms and cell cultures. It also makes extensive use of recombinant DNA techniques that helped to produce genetically modified plants and transgenic animals with new properties useful for humans. Such recombinant structures are used in medicine in gene therapy, diagnostics, and the creation of recombinant vaccines.

If we talk about the priority areas of research in biotechnology, these are the use of viruses in the creation of new biotechnologies, the study of physicochemical and biochemical bases in biotechnological processes, the development of new biotechnologies using methods of molecular biology and genetic and cellular engineering.

At the same time, biotechnology is not an asset of modern society. Since ancient times, biotechnological processes have been used in the production of bread, the preparation of fermented milk products, winemaking, for fermentation processes with the help of microorganisms (the production of cheeses and beer). With the discovery by Louis Pasteur in the 19th century of the microbiological essence of fermentation and many diseases of animals and humans, all these processes received a scientific basis. Starting from then we can rightfully talk about the development of biotechnology as a science.

Biotechnology helps the environment by helping to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides in agriculture, which reduces the risk of soil and groundwater contamination. In addition, we can finally eliminate hunger through increased yields and the selection of crops that are resistant to drought and disease.

Another area where the use of biotechnology can have a huge effect is medicine. Biotechnology has already provided methods for combating cardiac diseases, sclerosis, hemophilia, hepatitis, and AIDS. Recent developments in this area allow the creation of food products we are used to that will at the same time be medicines.

Separately, it is worth mentioning bionanotechnology, which is used by living organisms in nanotechnology, making it possible to create molecular motors, technology for manipulating individual molecules, and the like.


Impact on society, economy and state

Biotechnology is the basis of scientific and technological progress and improving the quality of human life. Today different branches of biotechnology are most commonly referred to using colors:

  • “White” (industrial) biotechnology is focused on the production of products that were previously produced by the chemical industry (alcohols, vitamins, amino acids, etc.).

  • “Green” deals with everything related to agriculture — methods and preparations for combating pests and pathogens in plants and domestic animals, creating bio-fertilizers, increasing plant productivity, including using genetic engineering methods.

  • “Red” (medical) biotechnology is aimed at research and creation of drugs using cell and genetic engineering technologies.

  • “Gray” biotechnology develops technologies and products for environmental protection, for example, soil reclamation, water and air purification, industrial waste disposal, and the like.

  • “Blue” focuses on marine organisms. First of all, the use of marine biota for the production of food, technical, biologically active, and medicinal substances.

Biotechnology, due to its interdisciplinary nature, is becoming the technological mainstream of the 21st century, combining:

  • information technology, nanotechnology (a complex of scientific and engineering disciplines that study the processes occurring on an atomic and molecular scale, imply the manipulation of materials and devices so small that nothing less can be — Startup Jedi),

  • cognitive technologies (information technologies that describe the basic human thought processes are one of the most “intelligent” sections of the theory of artificial intelligence — Startup Jedi)

  • and socio-humane technologies (aimed at realizing the goals of human development (life, health, level and duration of life, psychological comfort, degree of moral spiritual ascent, dignity, civil rights, and human freedoms) for the entire population — Startup Jedi).

At the same time, scientific advances in biotechnology open up new prospects in achieving immortality. Society itself is making huge breakthroughs in transplantation, cryonics, and nanotechnology. Immortalist (immortalists are the supporters of immortalism — a doctrine that proclaims human life as the main value and aims to prolong human life and ultimately achieve unlimited longevity — Startup Jedi) hope for the development of nanotechnology, which makes it possible to manipulate substance at the lowest level. The main direction of development is the creation of a “molecular robot” — a device that will allow carrying out “molecular surgery”, that is, to restore the damaged molecular and cellular structures of the body, which is considered the main cause of aging. It is predicted that the complete elimination of aging and even rejuvenation of the body will be possible already in the middle of the 21st century.

Finally, we note that according to the forecasts of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), biotechnology will create up to 3% of the GDP of developed countries by 2030.

30 Apr 2021


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