Industries in Depth

Biotechnology: what it is and how it's about to change our lives

A researcher works on cultured corals at the Coral Biome sea farm in Marseille, France, February 26, 2016.

Image: REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

Sang Yup Lee
Distinguished Professor, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)
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Biotechnology - technology that uses living organisms to make products - could soon allow us to conjure up products as diverse as household cleaning products, organs for transplant and cleaner renewable fuels. Sang Yup Lee, Distinguished Professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, and co-chair of the Global Future Council on Biotechnologies, explains how biotechnology is poised to change our lives, and why it could one day be as commonplace as having a cellphone or a tablet.

For people who are not familiar with biotechnologies, what are they and how do they impact our lives?

Biotechnology is a broad range of technologies that employ living organisms or parts of them to make diverse products. For example, drugs and therapeutics, nutritional compounds, environmentally friendly chemicals and materials, biofuels, and novel functional materials can be produced through biotechnology. More broadly, medical biotechnology, agricultural biotechnology and industrial biotechnology will all play increasingly important roles in our everyday life. Biotechnology can also be employed to degrade toxic or harmful chemicals and agents to solve environmental problems.

Your council will focus on developments in biotechnologies. What impact do you hope the council can have in the global conversation?

Like all technologies, biotechnology offers the potential of enormous benefit but also potential risks.

Biotechnology could help address many global problems, such as climate change, an aging society, food security, energy security and infectious diseases, to name just a few.

Our council intends to build a map of these global problems, which will show which biotechnologies could help with each global challenge. To do that, we will also take into consideration a realistic timeline, potential risks involved and other factors. Hopefully, the result will be a state-of-the-art biotechnology vision report that includes not only policy suggestions but also in depth information for both experts and the public.

What are these risks? What will the council do to avoid them?

Just like other emerging technologies, we cannot predict with absolute certainty the risks with biotechnology.

For example, synthetic biology is already contributing very much to the development of many biological systems producing drugs, chemicals and fuels without using fossil resources. However, if misused, synthetic biology can generate biological and chemical materials that are harmful to human beings as well as the environment.

Genome editing, especially when it is performed on people, will always carry ethical questions.

There are also questions in biofuels, ICT-based monitoring and diagnostics, and so on.

All these risks and challenges need to be addressed through dialogues among stakeholders including policy makers, experts, the public, and NGOs to map the risks and solutions. That is definitely one of the things The Global Future Council on Biotechnology will be studying by employing diverse expertise of council members and through dialogues with cross-council members and other stakeholders.

What else needs to be done to advance/speed up the development of bio-technologies? Where is it most relevant/important?

We need to see continued efforts in research as there are still many unknowns about living organisms. In depth research on cells, multi-cells, tissues, organs, organisms, and even communities of organisms would lead to better understanding of them and ultimately to develop better biotechnological applications.

Regulation is another place where we need to see advances. We need to ensure safety and security through regulation, but at the same time make sure we aren’t putting unnecessary hurdles in place which slow down progress. The only way we are going to achieve that is through a strong dialogue among all the stakeholders.

What are the big trends in biotechnologies right now? What are you excited about?

There are so many exciting things happening thanks to the rapid advances in biotechnology.

The genome editing of living organisms, including microorganisms, plants and animals, is exciting for many potential applications. With these advances, we could enhance bio-based chemicals production, increase food production and maintain a better nutritional value, or we could manufacture organs for transplant.

Metabolic engineering and synthetic biology are advancing very rapidly as well. That has led to the production of many chemicals, fuels and materials from renewable biomass, rather than depending on fossil resources.

We’re seeing some amazing developments in healthcare and the medical sector as well. New, highly complex natural compounds from bio-sources are becoming suitable for pharmaceutical purposes. Stem-cell therapy, ICT-integrated biotechnology, and many others will help address the health challenges brought on by an aging population.

Where do you think biotechnologies will be by 2030?

Biotechnology will become as common as having a cellphone or going online. There is going to be an even larger number of biotech companies, both big and small, along with an increasing number of venture companies.

In small villages or even at home, biotechnology might be used, just like in Science Fiction novels. You might simply ask a machine to make some household chemicals you need, rather than go buy it at the supermarket. Biotech trash converters could do away with waste.

Biotechnology could also help to tackle large national issues such as healthcare. Global healthcare spending, currently, is about 8 trillion US dollars. That price tag could be as high as we have to go, thanks to biotechnology. Even as the population grows, costs shouldn’t increase thanks to technologies such as efficient disease prevention and wellbeing programmes, precision medicine, genome editing, organ production, and stem-cell therapy. I think all of these will become rather routine.

So by 2030, I think it is realistic to say that biotechnology will become a part of our life, from drugs, medicine and therapeutics to environmentally friendly chemicals, fuels and materials.

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