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Opinion & Analysis

Tech, biology ties open new horizon

Research around the intersection of technology and biology has intensified. file photo | nmg
Research around the intersection of technology and biology has intensified. file photo | nmg 

Before his death on October 5, 2011, Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple, made the following remarks: “One of the very few silver linings about me getting sick is that Reed’s gotten to spend a lot of time studying with some very good doctors… I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning, just like the digital one when I was his age.”

He was ailing at the time but made the most profound prediction of our time.

Research around the intersection of technology and biology has intensified.

As a new article in Time magazine reports, scientists are now capable of altering the human genetic code, engineer new forms of material that improves on nature, develop new flowers that can detect bombs and create bacteria that secrete oil.

These scientific breakthroughs have far greater implication than we can imagine at the moment.

By mimicking the way yeast is made from sugar and used in the manufacture of beer, Modern Meadows, a New York-based start-up, has managed to develop collagen, the key ingredient in leather from animal skin.

The process begins from taking a tiny microbe from the skin and editing its DNA (a molecule that carries the genetic instructions used in the growth, development, functioning and reproduction of all known living organisms) in order to produce collagen as a metabolic product similar to yeast.

The end result is an industrial production of leather without killing animals.

Scientists think that bio-fabricated leather could be even better than the leather we are used to since one can realise greater production than raising animals to meet the demands of the $200 billion leather industry.

Slaughtering animals to cloth human beings will possibly cease. But more important, synthetic biology technology will change not just how we clothe ourselves but even how we feed given the fact that microbes could be engineered to manufacture meat in a lab.

As the world population inches closer to 10 billion, thoughts of synthetic meat may not be far-fetched.

As evidenced by the rise in the volume of venture capital investments, the need for synthetic products is growing.

In 2016, more than $1 billion was injected into synthetic biology start-ups. A 2016 Transparency Market Research Report cited by Time article predicted that the market for synthetic products could move from $1.8 billion in 2012 to $13.4 billion in 2019.

These could be as a result of increasing number of synthetic products ranging from oil to plants that can detect the presence of explosives.

Even with these promising breakthroughs, some scientists warn that some rogue scientists may attempt to synthesise human cells, thereby raising serious ethical issues.

It is argued that while attempts to engineer human cells to get rid of lethal genetic disorders may seem reasonable, there aren’t clear guidelines as to where such activity stops.

The debate rages as more and more synthetic products are being accepted as a strategy to minimise environmental destruction.

As we debate these emerging issues, there is the risk that the digital divide between developed and developing countries shall widen owing to the fact that investment in technology is inadequate to meet future jobs.

For example, the emerging field of computational biology (broadly defined by the Centre for Computational Molecular Biology as including “foundations in computer science, applied mathematics, animation, statistics, biochemistry, chemistry, biophysics, molecular biology, genetics, genomics, ecology, evolution, anatomy, neuroscience, and visualisation.”) is hardly recognised in many institutions of higher learning in the Global South.

The nexus between biology and technology predicted by Steve Jobs is here with us.

We must strive towards developing greater capacities around this emerging field.

As the Swahili proverb says, “Dawa ya moto ni moto” (you fight fire with fire).

We can only fight knowledge that may compromise our ethics with greater knowledge.

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