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Biotechnology is friend of humanity, not foe

POSTED October 1, 2013 10:20 p.m.

“It feels like home again” is probably the most accurate statement to describe the sensation of being back in Turlock after a month long departure. From July 7 to Aug. 3, I was experiencing a four-week residential program called COSMOS, the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science.

COSMOS was established in 2000 by the California State Legislature as a means of sparking passion in science, technology, engineering, and mathematic fields in 8th through 12th graders. COSMOS takes place at four University of California campuses, Davis, Irvine, Santa Cruz, and San Diego, and each campus offers a different assortment of clusters, or study areas.

I was admitted to the UC Davis Biotechnology Cluster, where I had the opportunity to hone my understanding of biotechnology’s fundamentals, try my hand at its newest tools and techniques, engage in a variety of labs, and receive an inside look at the current work of biotechnology companies such as Novozymes.  

However, I recognize that the subject itself sometimes remains a bit cloaked in mystery. So, what exactly is biotechnology? A rather panoptic definition that I learned is that it is the application of biological material to address some human need.

Using this definition it is easy to see that, contrary to popular belief, biotechnology has actually been an integral part of human life for quite some time now. Ranging from using animal fur for clothing to applying herbs for medicinal purposes to using yeast for bread leavening, taking advantage of biological material for practical purposes has been the case for millenniums.  

Understanding this basic truth can be helpful in dispelling the fearsome image that the mere mention of biotechnology often evokes. The fear, usually foreseeing a world engrossed in a fantastic struggle for “progress,” I think is partly supplemented by films such as "Gattaca" or novels such as "Brave New World." When such well-known works portray dystopian societies where morals are smashed and any notion of a fair chance at life is eclipsed in favor of lab-designed, programmed humans, it’s easy to feel distrustful.

And while these may nonetheless be fascinating works to read or watch, it’s safe to say that they can sometimes provide a distorted picture about biotechnology and its close interplay with related fields of science. Perhaps the biggest hot-button today is in the realm of modifying food for human consumption.

This hits with full force considering reports released last week that a team of researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands have produced a hamburger patty in a lab using cattle stem cells. The product, which costed over $300,000 to produce, is estimated to take upwards of 20 years before becoming viable for marketing.

I find it easy to anticipate that it won’t take long before this product and the likes of it slowly brew a backlash from scores of concerned consumers. Already, as I examined various web articles detailing the product, many of the comments inscribed below were less than approving. One commenter foresaw a personal turn to vegetarianism if lab-made hamburgers comprised the future.

While I agree that, particularly in these preliminary stages, it is difficult to ascertain all the ramifications of products made when biology and technology join forces, I think that single-mindedly smashing potential right from the get-go is not the answer either. In general, my only belief is that a more concerted effort to ensure that the public remains cognizant of both the pros and the cons of biotechnology can put us on a more informed course.

One more thing has impacted me tremendously over the course of this summer. The fact that, just as a high school student I have had the opportunity to engage in labs that even a few decades ago might have seemed improbable, is powerful. As biotechnology begins to influence greater areas of our lives, it’s worthwhile giving careful thought to how we are going to wield its tools for good. Constructing a more solid framework entrenched in responsibility and highlighting that key virtue to the newer generation who will one day be driving biotechnology’s course is increasingly imperative. My experiences this summer have solidified my conviction that we must exert all efforts necessary to ensure that biotechnology leads us in the right direction.

  — Henna Hundal is a high school student and resident of Turlock. She writes a monthly column on matters related to youth and our society

 

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