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The Biotech Century
Never before in history has humanity been so unprepared for the new technological and economic opportunities, challenges, and risks that lie on
the horizon. Our way of life is likely to be more fundamentally transformed in the next several decades than in the previous one thousand years. By
the year 2025, we and our children may be living in a world utterly different from anything human beings have ever experienced in the past.
In little more than a generation, our definition of life and the meaning of existence is likely to be radically altered. Long-held assumptions about
nature, including our own human nature, are likely to be rethought. Many age-old practices regarding sexuality, reproduction, birth, and
parenthood could be partially abandoned. Ideas about equality and democracy are also likely to be redefined, as well as our vision of what is
meant by terms such as "free will" and "progress." Our very sense of self and society will likely change, as it did when the early Renaissance spirit
swept over medieval Europe more than seven hundred years ago.
There are many convergent forces coming together to create this powerful new social current. At the epicenter is a technology revolution
unmatched in all of history in its power to remake ourselves, our institutions, and our world. Scientists are beginning to reorganize life at the genetic
level. The new tools of biology are opening up opportunities for refashioning life on Earth while foreclosing options that have existed over the
millennia of evolutionary history. Before our eyes lies an uncharted new landscape whose contours are being shaped in thousands of biotechnology
laboratories in universities, government agencies, and corporations around the world. If the claims already being made for the new science are only
partially realized, the consequences for society and future generations are likely to be enormous. Here are just a few examples of what could
happen within the next twenty-five years.
A handful of global corporations, research institutions, and governments could hold patents on virtually all 100,000 genes that make up the
blueprints of the human race, as well as the cells, organs, and tissues that comprise the human body. They may also own similar patents on tens of
thousands of micro-organisms, plants, and animals, allowing them unprecedented power to dictate the terms by which we and future generations
will live our lives.
Global agriculture could find itself in the midst of a great transition in world history, with an increasing volume of food and fiber being grown
indoors in tissue culture in giant bacteria baths, at a fraction of the price of growing staples on the land. The shift to indoor agriculture could
presage the eventual elimination of the agricultural era that stretched from the neolithic revolution some ten thousand years ago, to the green
revolution of the latter half of the twentieth century. While indoor agriculture could mean cheaper prices and a more abundant supply of food,
millions of farmers in both the developing and developed world could be uprooted from the land, sparking one of the great social upheavals in
Tens of thousands of novel transgenic bacteria, viruses, plants and animals could be released into the Earth's ecosystems for commercial tasks
ranging from "bio-remediation" to the production of alternative fuels. Some of those releases, however, could wreak havoc with the planet's
biosphere, spreading destabilizing and even deadly genetic pollution across the world. Military uses of the new technology might have equally
devastating effects on the Earth and its inhabitants. Genetically engineered biological warfare agents could pose as serious a threat to global
security in the coming century as nuclear weapons do now.
Animal and human cloning could be commonplace, with "replication" partially replacing "reproduction" for the first time in history. Genetically
customized and mass-produced animal clones could be used as chemical factories to secrete--in their blood and milk--large volumes of
inexpensive chemicals and drugs for human use. We could also see the creation of a range of new chimeric animals on Earth, including
human/animal hybrids. A chimp/hume, half chimpanzee and half human, for example, could become a reality. The human/animal hybrids could be
widely used as experimental subjects in medical research and as organ "donors" for xenotransplantation. The artificial creation and propagation of
cloned, chimeric, and transgenic animals could mean the end of the wild and the substitution of a bioindustrial world.
Some parents might choose to have their children conceived in test tubes and gestated in artificial wombs outside the human body to avoid the
unpleasantries of pregnancy and to ensure a safe, transparent environment through which to monitor their unborn child's development. Genetic
changes could be made in human fetuses in the womb to correct deadly diseases and disorders and to enhance mood, behavior, intelligence, and
physical traits. Parents might be able to design some of the characteristics of their own children, fundamentally altering the very notion of
parenthood. "Customized" babies could pave the way for the rise of a eugenic civilization in the twenty-first century.
Millions of people could obtain a detailed genetic readout of themselves, allowing them to gaze into their own biological futures. The genetic
information would give people the power to predict and plan their lives in ways never before possible. That same "genetic information," however,
could be used by schools, employers, insurance companies, and governments to determine educational tracks, employment prospects, insurance
premiums, and security clearances, giving rise to a new and virulent form of discrimination based on one's genetic profile. Our notions of sociality
and equity could be transformed. Meritocracy could give way to genetocracy, with individuals, ethnic groups, and races increasingly categorized
and stereotyped by genotype, making way for the emergence of an informal biological caste system in countries around the world.
The Biotech Century could bring some or even most of these changes and many more into our daily lives, deeply affecting our individual and
collective consciousness, the future of our civilization, and the biosphere itself. The benefits and perils of what some are calling "the ultimate
technology frontier" are both exciting to behold and chilling to contemplate. Still, despite both the formidable potential and ominous nature of this
extraordinary technology revolution, until now far more public attention has been focused on the other great technology revolution of the
twenty-first century--computers and telecommunications. That's about to change. After more than forty years of running on parallel tracks, the
information and life sciences are slowly beginning to fuse into a single technological and economic force. The computer is increasingly being used to
decipher, manage, and organize the vast genetic information that is the raw resource of the emerging biotech economy. Scientists working in the
new field of "bioinformatics" are beginning to download the genetic information of millions of years of evolution, creating a powerful new genre of
"biological data banks." The rich genetic information in these biological data banks is being used by researchers to remake the natural world.
The marriage of computers and genes forever asters our reality at the deepest levels of human experience. To begin to comprehend the enormity of
the shift taking place in human civilization, it's important to step back and gain a better understanding of the historic nature of the many changes that
are occurring around us as we turn the corner into a new century. Those changes represent a turning point for civilization. We are in the throes of
one of the great transformations in world history. Before us lies the passing of one great economic era and the birth pains of another. As the past is
always prelude to the future, our journey into the Biotech Century needs to begin with an account of the world we're leaving behind.
The End of the Industrial Era
The industrial saga is coming to an end. It was a singular moment in world history characterized by brawn and speed. We burrowed below the
Earth where we found millions of years of stored sunlight in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas--a seemingly unlimited source of energy that could
be used, with the aid of the steam engine, and later the electrodynamo, to speed the delivery of what we called material progress.
Our sense of place and space was fundamentally changed. Millions of human beings around the world were uprooted from their rural homes and
ancestral lands and forced to make their way into sprawling new urban enclaves where they sought a new kind of work in dimly lit factories and
bustling offices far removed from the changing seasons and the age-old customs and rituals of an agricultural existence.
Rails were laid across continents, followed in quick succession by telegraph and telephone wires and poles and miles of paved roads, changing our
notions of time and distance. The Wright brothers took wings to flight and a few years later Henry Ford began supplying every American family
with a standardized gasoline-powered automobile. Time zones and posted speeds heralded a new quickened pace of life, and in schools,
businesses, and homes, the talk was of efficiency, the new mantra of a streamlined, hard-hitting, "future oriented" century.
Everywhere, cement foundations were laid and scaffolding went up, making way for a new vertical world of gleaming secular cathedrals made of
iron, steel, aluminum, and glass. After centuries of working, living, and socializing side by side, we began a radical new experiment, living in relative
isolation, one on top of another, always in search of that elusive prize which, for want of a better name, we loosely carted self-fulfillment.
It was an age of great abundance for some and growing destitution for others--giant department stores, and later, vast shopping malls were filled
with exotica and trivia, staples, craft, and fine works of art. Fashion replaced necessities for millions of people.
Scientists and engineers became our new authorities on almost everything that mattered, their views and ideas sought out, revered, elevated, and
enshrined. It was the century of physics and chemistry. We peered into the micro world of atoms and electrons and rewrote the book of nature
with the discoveries of quantum mechanics and relativity theory. Scientists split the atom, harnessed a new form of energy more powerful than
anything human beings had ever experienced, and created the atomic bomb. Physicists and engineers took man to the moon and back while
chemists busied themselves with the creation of new kinds of more versatile synthetic materials. Plastics, a curiosity at the beginning of the century,
became ubiquitous by the mid decades, seemingly as essential to our way of life as the very air we breathe. Petrochemical fertilizers and synthetic
pesticides reshaped the agricultural landscape, coming just in time--claim many advocates--to help feed a growing human population that was
doubling every two generations.
We built vast sewer systems underground, aerated and purified our water, improved our nutrition and increased our life expectancy by more than
twenty years. Engineers invented the X-ray machine and later the MRI. Medical researchers gave us vaccinations, anesthetics, antibiotics, and
other wonder drugs.
At long last, we are nearing the end of this unique period in world history--the industrial era spread across five centuries and six continents and
fundamentally changed the way human beings lived, worked and viewed themselves and their world. It was, above all else, an age propelled by
cheap and abundant extractive energy. Once regarded as nearly inexhaustible, the fuel reserves of the carboniferous era are steadily diminishing,
making it more costly to extract and more expensive to consume. Watching the Persian Gulf War on television night after night as hundreds of oil
derricks across the Kuwaiti desert poured fire into the sky, consuming millions of barrels of precious oil for weeks and then months at a time, was
a powerful reminder of just how dependent the modern world has become on these precious fuels.
At the same time that our energy reserves are dwindling, the entropy bill for the Industrial Era is coming due, forcing us to look at the red ink on
the modern ledger. Our affluence has been purchased at a steep price. The spent energy of hundreds of years of burning fossil fuels has begun to
accumulate in the form of increasing greenhouse gases in the biosphere. Global warming is changing the very biochemistry of the planet, threatening
temperature and climate changes of incalculable proportions in the coming century. Even a three-and-one-half degree Fahrenheit change in
temperature brought on by global-warming gases--regarded by most scientists as a conservative forecast of what might be in store--would
represent the most significant change in the Earth's climate in thousands of years. A climate change of this magnitude will likely lead to the melting
of the polar ice caps, a worldwide rise in sea water level, the submerging of some island nations, the erosion of coastlines, and radical fluctuations
in weather including more severe droughts, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Whole ecosystems are likely to fall victim to the radical climate shift.
Agricultural regions are likely to shift far to the north, creating new opportunities for some and loss of livelihood for others.
The steady decline in fossil fuel reserves and the increasing global pollution brought on, at least in part, by the use of these same fuels is leading
civilization to search for new, alternative approaches to harnessing the energy of nature in the coming century. The hard reality is that we are
nearing the end of the age of fossil fuels and, with it, the end of the industrial age that has been molded from it. While the Industrial Age is not going
to collapse in a fortnight or disappear in a generation or even a lifetime, its claim to the future has passed. That is not to say that the Industrial Age
will not remain with us. It will, just as other great economic epochs still do. One can still travel the backwaters of the planet and stumble upon
faltering pockets of neolithic and even paleolithic life.
The industrial epoch marks the final stage of the age of fire. After thousands of years of putting fire to ore, the age of pyrotechnology is slowly
burning out. Fire conditioned humankind's entire existence. In the Protagoras, Plato recounts how human beings came to possess fire and the
pyrotechnological arts. According to the myth, as the gods began the process of fashioning living creatures out of earth and fire, Epimetheus and
Prometheus were called upon to provide them with their proper qualities. By the time they came to human beings, Prometheus noticed that
Epimetheus had already distributed all the qualities at their disposal to the rest of the plants and animals. Not wanting to leave human beings totally
bereft, Prometheus stole the mechanical arts and fire from the gods and gave them to men and women. With these acquisitions, humanity acquired
knowledge that originally belonged only to the gods.
Fire, said Lewis Mumford, provided human beings with light, power, and heat--three basic necessities for survival. Commenting on the role of fire
in human development, Mumford concludes that its use "counts as man's unique technological achievement: unparalleled in any other species." With
fire, human beings could melt down the inanimate world of nature and reshape it into a world of pure utility. As the late historian Theodore
Wertime of the Smithsonian Institution observed:
The age of pyrotechnology began in earnest around 3000 B.C. in the Mediterranean and Near East when people shifted from the exclusive use of
muscle power to shape inanimate nature to the use of fire. Pounding, squeezing, breaking, mashing, and grinding began to give way to fusing,
melting, soldering, forging, and burning. By refiring the cold remains of what was once a fireball itself, human beings began the process of recycling
the crust of the planet into a new home for themselves.
Now that humanity has fashioned this second home, it finds itself in short supply of the fossil fuels necessary to keep the economic furnaces afire
while increasingly vulnerable to the effects of accumulating global-warming gases that threaten to radically change the Earth's climate. The industrial
way of life has also become increasingly inhospitable to the rest of the Earth's creatures, who are largely unable to adjust to this alien manmade
environment. Overpopulation, logging, grazing, and land development are resulting in massive deforestation and spreading desertification. The
process is leading to the extinction of many of the remaining species of life, threatening a wholesale diminution of the Earth's biological diversity
upon which we rely for sources of food, fiber, and pharmaceuticals. To put the magnitude of the problem in perspective, it is estimated that during
the dinosaur age, species became extinct at a rate of about one per thousand years. By the early stages of the Industrial Age, species were dying
out on the average of one per decade. Today, we are losing three species to extinction every hour.
Humankind, then, faces three crises simultaneously--a dwindling of the Earth's nonrenewable energy reserves, a dangerous buildup of
global-warming gases, and a steady decline in biological diversity. It is at this critical juncture that a revolutionary approach to organizing the planet
is being advanced, an approach so far-reaching in scope that it will fundamentally alter humanity's relationship to the globe.
A New Operational Matrix
Great economic changes in history occur when a number of technological and social forces come together to create a new "operating matrix."
There are seven strands that make up the operational matrix of the Biotech Century. Together, they create a framework for a new economic era.
First, the ability to isolate, identify, and recombine genes is making the gene pool available, for the first time, as the primary raw resource for future
economic activity. Recombinant DNA techniques and other biotechnologies allow scientists and biotech companies to locate, manipulate, and
exploit genetic resources for specific economic ends.
Second, the awarding of patents on genes, cell lines, genetically engineered tissue, organs, and organisms, as well as the processes used to alter
them, is giving the marketplace the commercial incentive to exploit the new resources.
Third, the globalization of commerce and trade make possible the wholesale reseeding of the Earth's biosphere with a laboratory-conceived
second Genesis, an artificially produced bioindustrial nature designed to replace nature's own evolutionary scheme. A global life-science industry is
already beginning to wield unprecedented power over the vast biological resources of the planet. Life-science fields ranging from agriculture to
medicine are being consolidated under the umbrella of giant "life" companies in the emerging biotech marketplace.
Fourth, the mapping of the approximately 100,000 genes that comprise the human genome, new breakthroughs in genetic screening, including
DNA chips, somatic gene therapy, and the imminent prospect of genetic engineering of human eggs, sperm, and embryonic cells, is paving the way
for the wholesale alteration of the human species and the birth of a commercially driven eugenics civilization.
Fifth, a spate of new scientific studies on the genetic basis of human behavior and the new sociobiology that favors nature over nurture are
providing a cultural context for the widespread acceptance of the new biotechnologies.
Sixth, the computer is providing the communication and organizational medium to manage the genetic information that makes up the biotech
economy. All over the world, researchers are using computers to decipher, download, catalogue, and organize genetic information, creating a new
store of genetic capital for use in the bioindustrial age. Computational technologies and genetic technologies are fusing together into a powerful new
Seventh, a new cosmological narrative about evolution is beginning to challenge the neo-Darwinian citadel with a view of nature that is compatible
with the operating assumptions of the new technologies and the new global economy. The new ideas about nature provide the legitimizing
framework for the Biotech Century by suggesting that the new way we are reorganizing our economy and society are amplifications of nature's
own principles and practices and, therefore, justifiable.
The Biotech Century brings with it a new resource base, a new set of transforming technologies, new forms of commercial protection to spur
commerce, a global trading market to reseed the Earth with an artificial second Genesis, an emerging eugenics science, a new supporting
sociology, a new communication tool to organize and manage economic activity at the genetic level, and a new cosmological narrative to
accompany the journey. Together, genes, biotechnologies, life patents, the global life-science industry, human-gene screening and surgery, the new
cultural currents, computers, and the revised theories of evolution are beginning to remake our world. All seven strands of the new operational
matrix for the Biotech Century will be explored in the chapters that follow.
Isolating and Recombining Genes
The new operational matrix began to take shape in the 1950s, when biologists discovered ways of locating and identifying chromosomes and
genes. In the mid 1950s, cytologists--biologists who study the workings of cells--began experimenting with ways of separating chromosomes from
the rest of a cell's makeup and organizing them so they could be analyzed under a microscope. The process is called karyotyping. In their book
Genome, Jerry Bishop and Michael Waldholz point out the significance of the new cytogenetic tools: "For the first time, geneticists could correlate
abnormalities in human chromosomes with genetic disease." The result was the birth of "a new science of medical genetics, embracing the study of
human genetic disease at both the patient and chromosome levels."
In 1968, Dr. Torbjorn O. Caspersson and Dr. Lore Zech, both cytochemists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, invented a process for
identifying chromosomes, opening the door to the mapping of genes. The researchers realized that genes have different ratios of each of the four
base nucleotides G, A, T, and C. They then found a chemical, acridine quinacrine mustard, that has an affinity for the G base, and stained the
chromosome with it. When placed under ultraviolet light, the chromosome "glowed in a pattern of bright and dim spots reflecting high and low
concentrations of base G." Using the new banding pattern technique, Caspersson was able to identify individual human chromosomes. Other stains
were subsequently developed and by the mid-1970s, researchers were studying alterations in banding patterns of chromosomes and connecting
them to specific genetic traits and genetic disorders.
The first international workshop on gene mapping was convened in January of 1973 at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Researchers
reported on fifty newly mapped genes. At that time, only 150 genes had been mapped to specific chromosomes. By 1986, however, more than
1,500 genes had been mapped to specific chromosomes. A year later, in 1987, Collaborative Research Inc., a small biotech start-up company in
Bedford, Massachusetts, and researchers at MIT's Whitehead Institute, announced the compilation of "the first human genetic map."
That same year, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) proposed an ambitious government-funded project to determine the sequence of
all three billion G, A, T, and C base pairs that make up the human genome. Shortly thereafter, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) expressed its
own interest in mapping the human genome and set up an Office of Human Genome Research to oversee the effort. In the fall of 1988, the
government agencies agreed to join forces in the multibillion-dollar Human Genome Project, with NIH concentrating on gene mapping and the
DOE on gene sequencing. Other governments established their own human genome projects, followed closely on the heels by private commercial
ventures. Genome projects have also been established for plants, microorganisms, and animal species.
Currently, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on research all over the world to locate, tag, and identify the genes and the functions they
serve in creatures throughout the biological kingdom. Vast amounts of genetic data on plants, animals, and human beings are being collected and
stored in genetic databanks to be used as the primary raw resource for the coming Biotech Century.
The new methods for isolating, identifying, and storing genes are being accompanied by a host of new techniques to manipulate and transform
genes. The most formidable of the new tools is recombinant DNA. In 1973, biologists Stanley Cohen of Stanford University and Herbert Boyer of
the University of California performed a feat in the world of living matter that some biotech analysts believe rivals the importance of harnessing fire.
The two researchers reported taking two unrelated organisms that could not mate in nature, isolating a piece of DNA from each, and then
recombining the two pieces of genetic material. A product of nearly thirty years of investigation, climaxed by a series of rapid discoveries in the late
1960s and 1970s, recombinant DNA is a kind of biological sewing machine that can be used to stitch together the genetic fabric of unrelated
Cohen divides recombinant DNA surgery into several stages. To begin with, a chemical scalpel, called a restriction enzyme, is used to split apart
the DNA molecules from one source--a human, for example. Once the DNA has been cut into pieces, a small segment of genetic material--a
gene, perhaps, or a few genes in length--is separated out. Next, the restriction enzyme is used to slice out a segment from the body of a plasmid, a
short length of DNA found in bacteria. Both the piece of human DNA and the body of the plasmid develop "sticky ends" as a result of the slicing
process. The ends of both segments of DNA are then hooked together, forming a genetic whole composed of material from the two original
sources. Finally, the modified plasmid is used as a vector, or vehicle, to move the DNA into a host cell, usually a bacterium. Absorbing the
plasmid, the bacterium proceeds to duplicate it endlessly, producing identical copies of the new chimera. This is called cloned DNA.
The recombinant DNA process is the most dramatic technological tool to date in the growing biotechnological arsenal. The new techniques for
identifying and manipulating genes are the first strand in the new operational matrix of the Biotech Century. After thousands of years of fusing,
melting, soldering, forging, and burning inanimate matter to create useful things, we are now splicing, recombining, inserting, and stitching living
material into economic utilities. Lord Ritchie-Calder, the British science writer, cast the biological revolution in the proper historical perspective
when he observed that "just as we have manipulated plastics and metals, we are now manufacturing living materials." We are moving from the age
of pyrotechnology to the age of biotechnology. The speed of the discoveries is truly phenomenal. It is estimated that biological knowledge is
currently doubling every five years, and in the field of genetics, the quantity of information is doubling every twenty-four months. The commercial
possibilities, say the scientists, are limited only by the span of the human imagination and the whims and caprices of the marketplace.
Efficiency and speed lie at the heart of the new genetic engineering revolution. Nature's production and recycling schedules are deemed inadequate
to ensure an improved standard of living for a burgeoning human population. To compensate for nature's slower pace, new ways must be found to
engineer the genetic blueprints of microbes, plants, and animals in order to accelerate their transformation into useful economic products. Engineer
the genetic blueprint of a tree so that it will grow to maturity quicker. Manipulate the genetic instructions of domestic breeds to produce
faster-growing "super animals." Redesign the genetic information of cereal plants to increase their yield. According to a study by the United States
government's now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment, bioengineering "can play a major role in improving the speed, efficiency, and
productivity of. . . biological systems." Our ultimate goal is to rival the growth curve of the Industrial Age by producing living material at a pace far
exceeding nature's own time frame and then converting that living material into an economic cornucopia.
Some students of history might argue that human beings have been interested in increasing the quality and speed of production of biological
resources since we first embarked on our agricultural way of life in the early neolithic era. That being the case, it might well be asked if genetic
engineering is not simply a change in degree, rather than in kind, in the way we go about conceptualizing and organizing our relationship with the
biological world. While the motivation behind genetic engineering is age-old, the technology itself represents something qualitatively new. To
understand why this is the case, we must appreciate the distinction between traditional tinkering with biological organisms and genetic engineering.
We have been domesticating, breeding, and hybridizing animals and plants for more than ten millennia. But in the long history of such practices we
have been restrained in what we could accomplish because of the natural constraints imposed by species borders. Although nature has, on
occasion, allowed us to cross species boundaries, the incursions have always been very narrowly proscribed. Animal hybrids (mules, for example)
are usually sterile, and plant hybrids do not breed true. As famed horticulturist Luther Burbank and a long line of his predecessors have
understood, there are built-in limits as to how much can be manipulated when working at the organism or species level.
Genetic engineering bypasses species restraints altogether. With this new technology, manipulation occurs not at the species level but at the genetic
level. The working unit is no longer the organism, but rather the gene. The implications are enormous and far-reaching. (Chapter One continues...)
Table of ContentsIntroduction
One: The Biotech Century
Two: Patenting Life
Three: A Second Genesis
Four: A Eugenic Civilization
Five: The Sociology of the Gene
Six: Computing DNA
Seven: Reinventing Nature
Eight: A Personal Note