Recent Biological Advances
Biotechnology has always mesmerized me.
I am always amazed that scientists, working out of an unassuming laboratory, are able to revolutionize the world’s health, agricultural and technology industries. All of this is done by studying the world at the miniscule dimension of an atom.
The official definition of biotechnology, provided by our friends at Wikipedia, is:
“Biotechnology is the application of scientific and engineering principles to the processing of materials by biological agents to provide goods and services.”
Past advances driven by the biotechnology industry are aplenty. Consider that even as far back as 1982, the first gene-synthesizing machine was developed. For those of you who don’t wear a white coat to work, the aforementioned machine had the ability to artificially create the very same DNA that acts as a blueprint for the creation of every single one of us as human beings.
Gene-synthesis paved the way for DNA cloning. Do you remember Dolly, the sheep that was cloned in 1996? Ian Wilmut and his friends at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, took the nucleus from a mammory gland cell of a Finn Dorssett sheep and actually transplanted it into the enucleated egg of a Scottish blackface ewe. This nucleus-egg amalgamation was hit with a jolt of electricity, which caused the process of cell division to occur. From here, the new cell actually divided, and was inserted into the uterus of a blackface ewe, where it developed.
Now, I realise that this sort of cloning all sounds very science fiction to you. You’re probably questioning, “what use does cloning have, other than creating a sheep army?!”
Stem Cells hold the answer.
Growing Stem Cells
Using the process of cloning DNA, we can synthetically create stem cells in the laboratory. Not impressed? Stem cells hold the promise of being able to grow customized replacement organs, such as livers, hearts and skin. In essence, this type of cloning will one day allow us to have our very own personalised “human repair kits”.
Therapeutic cloning is a five-stage process, which I put in layman’s terms for you below:
- DNA is extracted from a person who is unwell
- Their DNA is subsequently put into an enucleated donor egg.
- This egg divides as a normal fertilized egg would, forming an embryo.
- After this, stem cells are extracted from the embryo.
- From here – the world is your oyster. Any type of organ or tissue can be artificially grown using stem cells.
All this means that, in the future, certain terminal diseases and ailments may not be anything to sweat over.
Yet, it’s not just Stem Cells that is keeping the biology world energized. Nanotechnology has scientists the world over giddy with excitement.
Nanotechnology, too, gets my heart racing.
Nanotechnology is concerned with manipulating matter at the atomic and molecular level. Doing so requires working on the nanoscale – using nanometres. Nanometres are so miniscule that they aren’t even visible with a light microscope. To put them further into perspective, nanometres are 1 billionth the size of a metre!
One noteworthy application of nanotechnology is new material production. We can actually manipulate molecules to form particular shapes. For instance, carbon nanotubes have been developed by harnessing this methodology.
Starting with graphite molecules, which are rolled into a tube, you can change the orientation of the molecules such that you end up with a carbon nanotube. The result? You end up with a substance that is hundreds of times stronger but merely one-sixth the weight.
To most people, talking about microscopes, pea tree dishes and test tubes is worse than watching paint dry.
But actually, until the invention of a new breed of microscopes in the 1980’s at IBM in Switzerland, nanotechnology, in its current form, was impossible. However, with more advanced, more powerful microscopes, the world of atoms and molecules could be more accurately visualized and managed.
So developments in the technology we use to observe the atomic-sized world are absolutely crucial. On this page, I want to focus in on one particular aspect of the microscope, namely lighting, or fluorescence illumination as it is more commonly known.
Certain materials are “photosensitive”, and lighting previously used in microscopes damaged these types of materials. Luckily, the invention of fluorescence illumination using UV curing lamps has meant that these photosensitive materials are left unscathed. God bless you, fluorescence illumination.