Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Domesticating Biotechnology in the 21st Century

Will we domesticate biotechnology in the next 50 years? More than 150 years of spectacular advances in physics, chemistry, and computing have thoroughly transformed the way we live. Yet so far, the big revolutions in molecular biology have had their impact primarily on professional laboratories, not our everyday lives. What do we need to do in order to domesticate biotech?

Physicist Freeman Dyson recently explored this question:

"Will the domestication of high technology, which we have seen marching from triumph to triumph with the advent of personal computers and GPS receivers and digital cameras, soon be extended from physical technology to biotechnology?"

Dyson predicts this will happen in the next 50 years:

"I predict that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years."

What form might this domestication take? Among Dyson's suggestions for domestication is user-friendly genetic engineering for hobbyist plant and animal breeders. I'm not so sure that making genetic engineering idiot-proof is the major hurdle; in fact, genetic engineering today is somewhat of an oxymoron. We may be able to engineer pet fish to express a green fluorescent protein, but we honestly have no clue how to engineer any but the most simple, monogenic traits.

We will dometicate biotechnology, and I predict that this will happen in two ways: by bringing biotech into the day-to-day practice of medicine, and by bringing genetic engineering to a truly sophisticated level, on par with aerospace engineering.

Bringing Biotech into the Clinic
To be honest, with the exception of imaging technology, medicine as practiced today is extremely low-tech. Very few of the fancy techniques that scientists use in a molecular biology lab are available on a routine, affordable basis in the clinic. Blood tests are downright primitive. And in spite of all of our sophisticated genome analysis technology, detailed genotyping is almost never used in medicine. Biotech is ripe for domestication in the clinic.

Dirt Cheap Genome Sequencing
One day, every newborn child will be routinely genotyped; that is, the hospital lab will take a blood sample and, quickly and cheaply, determine that baby's DNA sequence in the millions of places where humans can differ. Our genotype will become part of our medical records, which of course we ourselves will also have access to. Genotyping can be used to customize drug and disease treatments, as well as suggest lifestyle choices that will help avoid or minimize diseases that a person may be susceptible to. Universal genotyping can even be used by family history hobbyists.

The technological barriers will soon be overcome, leaving the social ones remaining as the largest obstacle to universal genotyping. Who can have access to this information? How much do you really want to know about your disease susceptibility? Your paternity? These aren't trivial questions.

The Universal Blood Test
High-tech, preventative diagnostics will transform the way we practice medicine. Most of today's diagnostic tests, with the exception of medical imaging, are based on decades-old techniques. Leroy Hood, a founder of Seattle's Institute for Systems Biology is working on technology for affordable, routine blood tests that will provide a comprehensive picture of your health, including the very early detection of diseases like cancer. These blood tests, one day cheap enough to be done annually, could thoroughly modernize preventative medicine.

Real Genetic Engineering
At Boeing, engineers can essentially design a new plane completely by computer, and predict in minute detail how that plane will behave in real-world weather. True genetic engineering will mean being able to make such quantitative predictions with the cell, but currently our abilities to make quantitative predictions are embarrassingly small. Analogous to Boeing's computer-aided design, computer aided genetic engineering will one day enable us to develop gene replacement therapies that don't have cancer as a side effect, develop specific, side effect-free drugs that treat tough diseases, and develop microbes that can generate energy from renewable resources, clean up toxic spills, or perform chemical reactions that organic chemists haven't yet been able to achieve.

The first step towards achieving this level of sophistication will be to completely understand all of the parts of an organism; the next will be to understand how those parts work as a system. We've nearly reached that first step for a eukaryotic organism: brewer's yeast, one of biology's key model organisms, will have an essentially completely annotated parts list within the next 10 years or so. Many scientists are now struggling with the next step, trying to make sense of how these parts work as a system. Yeast will be the first Boeing 747 of biology - an organism that we can completely and predictively model by computer, without extensive trial and error studies in the lab.

Maybe, after we've really learned how to do genetic engineering, hobbyists will then fulfill Dyson's dream of user-friendly plant design, and come up with a way to make glow-in-the-dark roses.

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