Magazine article The Futurist

The Promise of Genetics

Magazine article The Futurist

The Promise of Genetics

Article excerpt

The twenty-first century may prove to be the Age of the Gene. Biotechnology promises dramatic improvements in agriculture, health care, manufacturing, and even human beings themselves.

Genetics will be a key enabling technology of the twenty-first century, rivaling information technology, materials technology, and energy technology in importance.

The effects of all of these enabling technologies will be far-reaching across business and society, but advances in genetics in particular will be fundamental to many science and technology areas and societal functions, including health and medicine, food and agriculture, nanotechnology, and manufacturing.

One benefit of genetics that is already highly visible is in forensics. DNA identification will significantly enhance criminology. It may contribute to declines in violent crime, the identification of deadbeat parents, and the prevention of fraud. It may even deter rape and murder, as potential perpetrators fear leaving their DNA "fingerprints" on the scene.

Rising public interest in genetics is tied to the growing realization that humanity is capable of directly shaping its own and other species' evolution. We will no longer have to wait for nature's relatively slow natural selection. Genetics will bring the capability of speeding and redirecting evolution along paths of our choice. Eliminating genetic diseases, for instance, might take centuries through natural selection but could be accomplished in decades through genetic manipulation.

This power will doubtless inspire a profound global debate about how genetics should and should not be used.

The Genetic Economy

On the economic front, genetics could reward those who invest in it for the long haul. It is an industry for patient capital. Its spread over many industries will make it an increasingly important factor in the global economy.

Genetics is not a typical industry, in that it is not measured as a separate entity. It will be a part of, or embedded in, so many industries that government statisticians will not attempt such a measure. A good guess is that genetics will account for about 20% of gross domestic product, or roughly $2 trillion in 2025.

The early emphasis on using genetics to improve human health and battle disease will be supplemented with more exotic applications, such as manufacturing and materials, human enhancement, energy, environmental engineering, and species restoration and management. The food and agriculture industries, for example, are steadily expanding their use of genetics. Advances will come from applying what seem like isolated breakthroughs into a systems framework. For example, researchers working on eradicating a species of locust may develop a microorganism useful in converting crop wastes into biomass energy.

Genetics and Species Management

The genomes of many animals, fish, insects, and microorganisms will be worked out, leading to more refined management, control, and manipulation of their health and propagation - or their elimination.

* Designer animals. Routine genetic programs will be used to enhance animals used for food production, recreation, and even pets. Goats, for example, are especially well suited to genetic manipulation. In affluent nations, goats will be used for producing pharmaceutical compounds; in less-developed nations, goats will produce high-protein milk.

Livestock will be customized to increase growth, shorten gestation, and enhance nutritional value. Farmers will be able to order the genes they want from gene banks for transmission to local biofactories, where the animals with the desired characteristics will then be produced and shipped.

Transgenic animals, sharing the genes of two or more species, may be created to withstand rough environments. Genes from the hardy llama in South America, for example, could be introduced into camels in the Middle East - and vice versa - to greatly expand the range of each. …

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