By the early twentieth century, the laws governing heredity were well understood.
Gregor Mendel: Genetics Pioneer
The underlying mechanism remained obscure, however, until the s, when James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the molecular structure of DNA. But the early efforts to decipher DNA sequences were frustrated by the sheer complexity of the challenge. Through the s, researchers struggled to map the codes of individual genes—never mind the entire genome. Over the past decade, however, the pace of discovery has accelerated dramatically.
A series of technological advances in disciplines as varied as spectroscopy, robotics, and computing has given scientists a powerful new set of tools for discovering, mapping, and modifying genetic information. In , the first full genome of a living organism, the bacterium that causes meningitis, was sequenced, and a dozen other gene maps soon followed.
This year, if the current schedule holds, we will see the completion of the first map of the entire human genome. The code of all life forms is written in deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. DNA takes the form of a double helix that resembles a long spiral staircase. The rungs linking the two sides of the staircase are composed of pairs of nucleotides—either adenine and thymine or cytosine and guanine.
These base pairs contain the instructions for the various biological processes required for an organism to live and reproduce. The complete set of instructions for an organism is known as its genome. Because the human genome contains more than 3 billion base pairs, mapping it is extraordinarily difficult. Today researchers are using two different methods to complete the map. The publicly funded project overseen by the National Institutes of Health is carefully dividing DNA into segments, which are then cloned and distributed to hundreds of labs for sequencing.
The results are deposited in a public database and then gradually integrated until the whole genome is revealed. It is akin to having several teams laying bricks until various walls come together in a coherent structure. The private company Celera Genomics, by contrast, is trying to complete the whole sequencing process within a single lab. It uses powerful computers to identify overlaps in the base pairs of DNA segments. In a sense, it is like using a computer to assemble a million-piece 3-D jigsaw puzzle.
As our knowledge of the science of life has progressed, the commercial possibilities have multiplied, attracting a large and increasingly varied set of companies. The development of binary computer code enabled all kinds of information, from text to sound to video, to be communicated digitally. Previously disparate industries such as publishing, television, movies, radio, telecommunications, and computing suddenly found themselves using a common language—the language of zeros and ones.
And once you share a common language, they soon found, you often share a common business. A similar dynamic will play out in life science. Genetic code, after all, is a type of language. Rather than zeros and ones, it is made up of four letters—A, T, C, and G—which represent the four nucleotides that form DNA: adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine.
Just as alterations in computer code change the shape of information, alterations in genetic code change the shape of life. All industries that deal with living things or with organic compounds will thus have a common language and, in turn, a common business.
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They will converge. Moreover, since genetic code is itself a form of information and thus subject to digital manipulation, computer and other information technology companies will also play central roles in the life-science industry. Seeds have gone from little-noticed commodities to hot products, and the valuations of companies that distribute them have multiplied as agricultural, chemical, and pharmaceutical conglomerates have vied to acquire them.
Why did seeds suddenly become so valuable? Because seeds are the best means for selling genetically engineered plants to farmers. Control over the seeds, moreover, provides control over the intellectual capital they contain, which is essential to recouping the enormous investments required for genetic engineering. Of course, genetically modified seeds were of immediate interest to agricultural conglomerates.
Newly designed crops promised to be easier to grow, process, and ship. The seeds were also of keen interest to chemical companies, which saw them as direct threats to their pesticide and herbicide businesses. By planting crops engineered to be resistant to common pests, farmers would be able to reduce their dependence on costly chemicals and mitigate the damage their farming does to the environment.
Many large chemical companies read the writing on the wall and dove into the seed business as part of a more general shift toward biotechnology. DuPont acquired interests in Pioneer and other seed companies and announced that life science would be its focus for the twenty-first century. Dow Chemical invested in seed and other agribusiness companies through its Agro-Sciences unit.
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Pharmaceutical companies like Novartis, Zeneca, and Schering-Plough also joined in the bidding war for seed companies. They, too, saw genetically engineered seeds as a threat to their traditional business. Just as crops can be designed to have higher nutritional value, they can also be designed to have higher medicinal value. Some agribusiness labs are trying to take the characteristics of a wild Italian broccoli, which appears to be times more effective in building up cancer defenses, and engineer them into commercial varieties.
Other companies are trying to create bioengineered corn that will target and poison cancer cells, fight osteoporosis, and reduce heart disease. Still others are reprogramming the genes of some fruits and vegetables to turn them into vaccines against diarrhea, tetanus, diphtheria, hepatitis B, and cholera. To be vaccinated in the future, you may not need to get a shot. You may just have to eat an apple.
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Animals are also being turned into drug-manufacturing facilities. Genzyme Transgenics has engineered goats to give milk containing antibodies that can serve as human medicines. Judah Folkman are working with Genzyme to have the goats produce large volumes of proteins for cancer treatment.
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Someday people may go out of their way to have mosquitoes bite them. They realize that more and more discoveries with important implications for human health will come out of agricultural and chemical research labs. As organisms evolve, they usually retain many of their old genes, which means most life forms share similar genetic structures.
As a result of the consistency in genetic makeup, breakthroughs in the genetic treatment of diseases for animals often hold the keys to treating human diseases. If you can cure a type of cancer in a mouse, you can sometimes use similar therapies to treat related cancers in humans.
Gregor Mendel (Life Science) : Genetics Pioneer - specadmorinna.ml
The big drug companies have no choice but to play in this game. The convergence of the agricultural, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries is only the beginning. As our knowledge of genetic code and how to manipulate it grows, ripple effects will be felt across many industries. The ability to understand what diseases individuals might be predisposed to, how they might react to specific medicines, and what they might do to prevent future illness will change the practice of medicine. Already, companies like Affymetrix are building silicon chips embedded with hybrid bits of DNA that can test for 6, genetic conditions in any given individual.
Chips the size of quarters will soon be able to test for as many as , conditions, and once the human genome is available, they may be able to screen for almost all known genetic diseases and defects.
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Such powerful diagnostic tools will lead to highly personalized medical treatments and, at the same time, they will refocus much of medical practice on prevention rather than intervention. William Haseltine, the CEO of Human Genome Sciences, a leading pharmaceutical company, believes that we will see a huge shift in the ratio of doctor bills to pharmaceutical costs.
The current ratio is approximately 9 to 1. He predicts that it could become 1 to 1 in the next 25 years. Delivery vehicles for medicines will also proliferate.