Better Living Through Science: Biotech, Food and the Future
From beer to bread, to cosmetics, the cotton in clothing, the rubber in tires, and the plastic in cups, biotechnology is everpresent in our daily lives.
In the face of reduced crop yields due to climate change effects and the rise of global food prices, biotechnology could provide food, energy and resources to meet the increasing demand of the world’s growing population. While working on biotech solutions, scientists need to respond to safety, ethical, and policy concerns of consumers and governments.
The Executive Director of the New York Biotechnology Association (NYBA), Dr. Nathan Tinker spoke about the role of biotechnology in New York as a growth potential industry. According to Dr. Tinker, due to its potential, biotechnology is a driver of innovation, which in turn, drives job creation, the economic market and technological advances and transfer. Prof. Karl-Heinz Kogel continued the discussion by focusing on areas where plant biotechnology solutions are required, with examples from agriculture and medicine. In the case of agriculture, fusarium, a group of common fungi that contaminates wheat, plays a significant role in crop failure. Although naturally occurring, the fungi produce mycotoxins that are 700 times more toxic than pesticides. Warmer soil conditions result in the spread of the fungus and higher toxin levels in food. Through plant biotechnology, which is modeled after techniques found in nature, crop resistance to fusarium can be established. Prof. Kogel went on to discuss the state of Hessen’s “LOEWE” program (Landes-Offensive zur Entwicklung Wissenschaftlich-ökonomischer Exzellenz), which connects insect and plant biotechnologies to identify new compounds for medicine and agriculture. Another current research project of Prof. Kogel and his research team focuses on developing gluten-free wheat to relieve the symptoms of celiac disease. An autoimmune disorder, celiac disease results from an immune response to prolamin proteins in gluten found in wheat. Biotechnology offers two possible solutions: Adding a gene that codes for a prolamin-degrading enzyme, or silencing the genes that express for prolamins. Other comparable autoimmune disorders could be alleviated in a similar fashion.
Dr. Rina Singh turned the discussion to the prospects of industrial biotechnology (IB), or the application of life sciences to conventional manufacturing and synthetic processes. According to Dr. Singh, the use of IB processes results in lower production costs, reduction or prevention of pollution and enhanced resource conservation. From biopolymers and renewable chemical platforms to algae technologies, synthetic waste removal and industrial enzyme technologies, the various fields of IB have an increasing share of the market. Given the variety of applications and its environmentally beneficial effects, IB could be a key driver for a low-carbon economy.
To demonstrate the benefits of IB, Dr. Singh provided the example of industrial enzyme technology. As an alternative to the traditional chemical methods in producing everything from food and clothing to pharmaceuticals, the employment of enzymes significantly reduces the number of steps required in processing. This, in turn, decreases the number of resources required, the quantity of energy used and the amount of waste produced as well as the overall cost. She concluded the event by stating that with clear and consistent government policy, and climate change and job creation as drivers, industrial biotechnology will continue to grow and evolve, creating innovative products and processes.