February 14, 2009

Biotechnology Expected To Rapidly Expand

Advances in biotechnology are laying the groundwork for a huge boom as it becomes more largely applied in fields of healthcare and alternative fuel production, according to scientists at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.

"What you have seen over the last 35 years of biotech are tremendous applications, immediate applications of biotech starting with recombinant therapeutics all the way through," Drew Endy, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, told AFP.

But Endy says scientists have yet to really unlock and apply all of the potential held by biotechnology as a science.

"The technology is surprisingly immature. When you look at all the things we could do, we are hardly scratching the surface."

However, he adds, science is picking up the pace, citing that the gene sequencing project went from reading a bacteria genome to reading a human genome in only six years.

"I bet we will be able to construct a human chromosome, and the yeast genome," Endy said. "It sounds a little bit crazy because it's an exponential improvement in the tools."

"We are advocating now a national initiative in synthetic biology that would include in part a route map for getting better in building genetic material, constructing DNA from scratch and assembling it into genes and genomes."

Jay Keasling, professor of biochemical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, is using biotechnology to make an anti-malaria drug, called artemisinin, more cheaply by using synthetic microbe rather than using the original plant source.

"We anticipate in one or two years that the optimization process will be completed and that production of the drug will commence and have it in the hands of people in Africa shortly thereafter," Keasling said.

Christina Smolke, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, told the conference: "Our goal is to make more effective therapies by taking advantage of the natural capabilities of our immune system and introducing slight modifications in cases where it is not doing what we would like it to do."


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