Of Humans and Microbes
Well, I have to admit that I was not exactly jumping up and down for joy when I was asked to write this article for SELEDA. After much cajoling I agreed to do it, and now I am glad I did for in the end it rekindled some of the idealism that initially moved me into this field. I should say, however that I am not much of a writer and though I have attempted to convey some of the interest and excitement in my field, I dare not hope for more than to capture enough of your interest that you keep reading till the end of this short piece.
I guess the very simplest and most general description of what I do is molecular microbiology/ genetic engineering. More specifically I work on vaccine development for a type of bacterial meningitis (caused by Neisseria meningitidis for anyone who cares). The most common response I get when I tell people this is "but isn't there a vaccine for it already"? And my answer is "yes and no".
There is a pretty good vaccine for the type of meningitis that afflicts most of Africa and parts of Asia, but even that does not work very well on children. There is another strain of N. meningitidis which causes the meningitis that is becoming more common in Western Europe and the Americas, and for which a vaccine has been difficult to develop. My work entails the use of microbiology, molecular biology, and some biochemistry, and I thought that instead of delving into the specifics of what I do it might be more interesting to write about some of the ways these disciplines are being used in biotechnology. What I have tried to do is to very superficially outline a few of the many applications of molecular microbiology and biology, a vast area encompassing many different subgroups with broad applications.
To begin, I want to allay the fears most of us have of microbes. Far from the prevailing misconceptions, the vast majority of microbes are not harmful, and they are an integral and essential part of life on earth (and maybe beyond). In humans more than 400 species of microorganisms reside in the digestive tract, and there are more than 10-fold more microbial cells than human cells, performing functions such as providing nutrients we cannot synthesize and protecting us from pathogens (disease causing microorganisms). And we are not the only ones who benefit from close relationships with microbes. From the intestinal tract of cows where microbes aid in digesting foods to the hindgut of termites, to the soil, in association with plants, in fish, oceans and hot springs, microbes have a role in every aspect of life. For those interested PBS had an interesting four-part series entitled Intimate Strangers about two months ago, and both the video and the accompanying book are available.
A significant part of biotechnology is based either directly or indirectly on our understanding of microbial life processes. These are exciting times for this field as technology is being used in a vast array of areas to enhance productivity and quality of life. Many social and ethical issues arise that need to be resolved, and though I do not attempt to address any of these it should not be misconstrued to mean that I advocate the unlimited use of these technologies.
An obvious area where we see the use of biotechnology is in medicine. Novel drugs, antibiotics and vaccines for infectious diseases are being developed through new ways. Cancer treatments being developed include not only drugs but also vaccines that can be custom designed for each individual. Gene therapy (barring the latest controversies) offers promising remedies for maladies due to genetic aberrations.
Similarly, in agriculture biotechnology is being used to increase the yield and quality of foods. I am sure that everyone has heard of all the latest controversies regarding genetically modified food products (GM foods). I do not want to get into these controversies (which I am glad exist), but in keeping with my theme I will point out only the advantages.
Modifications in plants so that they are resistant to certain pests and herbicides allow farmers to reduce their use of pesticides and to target weeds for destruction, thereby saving them resources while reducing environmental damage due to chemical run off. The nutrition value of crops can be increased as has been done for rice and certain oil crops (canola) by manipulating the genetic make-up of plants with direct benefits to the consumer. Microbes are typically used as vehicles for these applications. With the rapid increase of the human population we have to feed larger numbers of people from the same resources. GM foods may offer a solution to the decrease in arable land as humans encroach on it, by allowing us to grow more from a smaller area.
Specially selected microbes are also being used to solve various environmental problems in a process known as bioremediation. Oil spills have been cleaned up using bacteria that degrade oils and convert them into less toxic compounds. Bacteria are also being harnessed to aid in cleaning radioactive contamination in hard-to clean places. Then there is the use of microbes to produce biodegradable polymers to replace plastics as more environmentally sound alternatives.
Finally there is the field of developing transgenic animals. Though this does not fall into the realm of molecular microbiology it is molecular biology so I will say a word or two about it. Animals, like plants and microbes, are being engineered so that they produce large quantities of human therapeutic products (biopharmaceuticals) and as sources of organs for humans. Essentially, we are using animals as bioreactors, as factories with life for the commercial manufacture of products. This raises glaring ethical issues but I would like to point out that it is not very different from using animals as bioreactors for meat production.
So, what does this all mean for the third world? Perhaps the most realistic way to benefit from these technologies is to adopt and adapt them so that they are better suited for our needs. Research and development in the life sciences is costly and risky; however, we have valuable resources we could utilize such as human talent. This is an area where creative ideas mean as much as the actual product. An environment that fosters not only technical expertise but also creativity is key to our development in this arena. Thus, I think one of the first things we need is to improve and expand education, support basic research at the universities and expand collaborations with research groups in the more developed world. This will enable us not only to access and develop these technologies but also to import and apply them with discretion (the regulatory aspect of biotechnology is an integral part of the system). There are many Ethiopian scientists who are working on using biotechnology to solve problems specific to our region. Perhaps SELEDA may feature them one day soon.
There are many social and ethical issues we, as a society need to address with regards to use of biotechnology. Unfortunately, I believe development in this area is lagging far behind commercial interests that keep pushing for the use of science in technology. While I am not for the completely unregulated use of technology, I believe that it can do a lot of good things for us. It is up to us to use science and technology ethically, and beneficially. Finally, I would like to add simply, that science is good, it does not have to be religion. In fact, if we are truly scientific we should be critical of science itself (in contrast to religion which is not critical of itself). If science becomes religion it is because we make it so, not because it is in its nature to be so.