BioPerspectives

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Mar 25, 2011

Biotech From the Outside Looking In

  • Know thy audience. It's the first commandment of writing. Thanks to the internet, this rule can now be ignored with impunity. The sheer volume of material the internet delivers, borne by tireless backbone routers, forces us to self-select our channels.

    Having our own “shopping carts” of news, entertainment, and reference sources carries a number of benefits: As an author, your audience comes to you because they like your work, and as a consumer, you choose only the most appealing content—no more boring channels. On the other hand, both authors and consumers can become complacent, producing and accepting mediocre content and false claims.

    Science writing is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Though major news outlets, trade publications, and academic journals could all carry the same information, they don't. Journals carry details of procedures and data that the other formats generally leave out, and trade magazines usually preserve additional analysis and specific names so that keeping track of developments is easier. News articles provide just enough information to attract attention and provide conversation material, but there are always sensationalized bits to provide entertainment.

    I'm no purist; journal articles can be (and often are) boring, repetitive, and abstruse. At the same time, news and many popular science sources provide insufficient information, leaving me to search for the original source, making them more work than they're worth. I'll admit I hardly read the news these days, and often the errors in reporting (gross oversimplifications, even leading to misleading information) further dissuade me. I'm not the intended audience, and I've selected myself out of the pool of so-called “layman” popular science consumers.

    When Dr. Hammad Azzam's Shifting Borderlines, a pop science/futuristic book was referred to me, I saw it as a nice opportunity to investigate other viewpoints on the future of biotechnology.

  • Crossing the Borderlines

    I'm not in the book's intended audience, and—no big surprise here—I wasn't impressed. As far as pop science books go, Shifting Borderlines is fairly pedestrian. The explanations of the science involved were cursory and, in the biology section, misleading.

    For example, DNA repair is described as Terminator-like self-repair, as if single nucleotides in solution happily pair up with single strands with no mention of enzymes or energy expense. Longer strands pair better because of base-stacking, and single nucleotides have to overcome a significant entropy cost to stay attached to partners. DNA doesn't just pull nucleotides out of solution to repair itself.

    Of course, the book isn't meant to be a primer on molecular biology—it's a book with a focus on futurism. The author employs four representatives: a skeptic, a Ray Kurzweil stand-in (seriously, it's the futurist with an alias), a popular science evangelist, and Dr. Azzam himself. They discuss the current state of science and the future of science and technology.

    Despite his attempts, their discussions end up showing one real viewpoint: Dr. Azzam's. As an electrical engineer, Dr. Azzam proves his mettle in the computational aspects of his book, discussing topics such as the continuation of Moore's Law and the advancement of artificial intelligence. His treatment of physical theories is reasonably good.

    Dr. Azzam, like most people, is understandably excited about advances in both computing and biotechnology. And, like most people, he can cite more innovations from computing that have produced tangible entities in his daily life—his iPod, phone, and so on all get a mention.

    However, little omissions in biology are the foundation for an overly enthusiastic view of the future of biotechnology—cures for aging, cancer, and what-have-you are mentioned without much regard for the mechanism. One consistent assertion of futurists (and I am not the first to notice this) is that a cure for aging will arrive within their lifetimes. Hope springs eternal, I guess.

    I also think it's interesting that both of the futurists he discusses, Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurzweil, are trained in computer science and yet pick biotechnology as their path to immortality rather than some sort of Matrixy mind-copying deal. Perhaps they have more realistic expectations regarding the fields they are most familiar with?

  • Where's The Beef?

    Are these the expectations of the general populace? Or does the endless stream of “groundbreaking” and “revolutionary” discoveries, as reported by the news media, dull the public's enthusiasm?

    Intel, AMD, ARM, and other chipmakers have managed to keep up with Moore's Law, consistently churning out innovation upon innovation. Thanks to the semiconductor crew, we have supercomputing power in your laptop, or even in your phone. Really: The first Crays managed only a couple of gigaflops (floating point operations per second), something my underclocked Core 2 does in a miniscule fraction of the space, power, and cost.

    So what have biotechnologists been up to? Where are the consumer toys? The counterparts to the iPads and dooDads? Where's the gourd that lights your house and smells like strawberries or the bandages that disinfect wounds and repair nerve damage?

    From the inside, the achievements are indeed amazing—we've seen Moore's Law improvements in DNA sequencing and synthesis, and our toolboxes are expanding in ways that can only be described as incredible. We now have viral vectors, stem cell isolation, artificial microenvironments, new assays, imaging, and so on.

    What the consumer sees, though, is very different. The miraculous new treatments like Herceptin and Cerezyme to sequencing that can determine drug response and disease predisposition comprise part of this wonderful pile of work that only a select few will really think about (and my sympathy to those who find out by necessity).

    While the generic consumer might whine about a cell phone locking up or how the Xbox cooked itself again, these gripes are easily assuaged with new tech. But claims that “we made it so sharp you can see their pores” or “you never have to be without Starcraft” don't cut it when it comes to biology. Because when it comes down to what the consumer wants, it's also what the futurist wants, what everyone wants—a panacea.

    No one expects computers to save the world, but biotech seems to have the world on its shoulders. Instead of “what will they think of next?” it's “when will they get around to fixing that?” This, all on top of the fact that biotech contends with additional regulation, increased complexity, and more caution for unforeseen events.

  • Engaging the Consumer

    It would be nice for biotech to have something equivalent to CES, the annual consumer electronics tradeshow, to have something to unveil every year, with consumer applications. The introductions would perhaps be along the lines of, “Here's your new and improved corn that now prevents pellagra” or “This new fern removes dust, mold, pollen, and other messy things from the air!”

    Of course, we run into the one major problem with life: It's alive. It adapts, reproduces, and eats your lunch while you're not looking. But even nonliving products to take on consumer-level problems would make a profitable addition to the less-visible revolutionary cures and discoveries. At the very least, it would break up the monotony and help with consumer acceptance. After all, even the Terminator series did nothing to stop the entrance of PCs, broadband, smartphones, and Google into our lives. Could smart plants work for biotech like smartphones did for electronics?


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