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The world of Biotechnology in movies and books

  • For those of us who have read Inferno written by Dan Brown the world of biological warfare would be familiar to us. The subject of biological warfare has been broached upon in various movies and books namely The Cassandra Compact by Robert Ludlum, G. I. Joe (the movie) etc. but very few of us are aware that this farfetched concept often propping up in the culture of science fiction is a reality. Prevalent as a form of warfare since 6th century B.C. biological warfare has been a predominant developing field since the onset of World War 1. By World War 2, United Kingdom led under the leadership of microbiologist Paul Fildes effectively weaponized anthrax and botulism toxins. The Japanese Imperial Army went a step further by testing the biological weapons upon prisoners of the war for which they were later severely chastised. The biological weapons have characteristics along the lines of infectivity, high virulence, non-availability of vaccines, and availability of an effective and an efficient delivery system making it a dangerous form of warfare. The toxin can spread to a large population and cause an epidemic if not quarantined at the initial stages. For example: Bacillus anthracis is an effective weapon creating aerosols of size 1 micrometre which can be easily inhaled causing degradation of the respiratory tract. If not through air, these bioweapons can enter the habitat through soil or water. There are various departments which ensure the complete preservation of bioweapons and their usage only for research purposes Centre for Disease Control (CDC), USA etc. Currently all projects of biological weapons are carried out under extreme scrutiny.

  • Spiderman, a superhero who can spin webs and provide an adrenaline rush to the moviegoers. All of us are familiar that the powers of Spiderman were infested after he was bitten by a radioactive spider but a few know that the comics released around 1962 have an important concept of biotechnology well thought out. Cross-mutation genetics or better known to us as intergeneric hybridization is what is clearly demonstrated in Spiderman. The concept is simple, intergeneric hybrids are obtained by a cross between individuals belonging to two different genera. The concept has gained a lot of popularity in the last decade and is commonly carried out in plants to improve the existing variety of decorative flowers like orchids. It is a complex process and tedious but recent advances in this field have made it a possibility which can be further explored. Interspecific cross is the most common form of hybridization carried out and even though these crosses take a lot of years they are a developing field. So Spiderman unknowingly demonstrated a great example of the reach of biotechnology in a fun way!
  • Another movie insanely popular but demonstrating a very important concept of genetics if the X-Men series. A professor who can glance in the minds of others, a villain which can control iron, a shape shifter, super strength etc. and an endless list goes on all showing us the powers of mutation. Mutation simply defined as a change in a nucleotide sequence of the genome can cause wonders. Induced mutations have not been successful yet but there are some natural mutations all around the world which give certain people some abilities. Some are born with a tail; some are born with strength which supersedes that of an average human being. The Buddhist monks commonly found in the Shaolin temple demonstrate this unique ability of stealth and speed and it’s been widely observed that they can increase their body temperature through 10 degree Celsius above the normal range. The monks attribute this to a form of mediation commonly known as Tum-mo but they have been an extensive study of eager scientists. Similarly, Michael Loitito is famously known for his super eating powers entering the Guinness Book of World Records for eating up an airplane! He can digest metal, glass and toxic materials without breaking a sweat. It was observed that his stomach lining is twice as thick as normal attributing it to mutation. Telepathy, a form of superpower usually seen in such movies has now been achieved in rats. Led by the team of Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, they were able to demonstrate a direct interface between two brains – the rats were able to share both motor and sensory information. Honourable mention in this category also includes the movies Godzilla and Evolution.
  • Ever heard of Regenesis?  Well we are familiar with this term in a different way. All of us are familiar with artificial intelligence and robots, a recurring theme in endless books and movies. Taking it a step further is Regenesis, a concept which the scientists claim to have derived from movies but taking it a step further. Regenesis in literal terms means new birth or renewal. Like a robot is a form of artificial life, a very new field of biology known as synthetic biology is coming up where-in a new biological system is created. Interesting man-made DNA is incorporated in living cells and then the cell is allowed to grow with the synthetic DNA therefore this given field can vastly help in the study of the expression of a gene and the metabolism of the cell. Geneticists have found a number of gene sequences which correspond to differing traits in organisms; these individual gene sequences have been developed and incorporated into DNA similar to genetic blocks. This is essentially how genetic engineers alter the DNA of living organisms. What separates synthetic biology from genetic engineering is that rather than altering an already existent DNA strand, synthetic biology puts these “blocks” together from scratch to build an entirely new strand of DNA which is then placed into an empty living cell. Pioneering work in this field have been done by biologist J. Craig Venter and his team who were successful in building the first synthetic genome by bringing together 147 pages of nucleotides and introducing it into Mycoplasma genitalium.
  • Jurassic Park, a place where dinosaurs roam free and walk the earth. This movie has demonstrated one of the most advancing and successful fields of biotechnology; the field of cloning. Cloning defined in simple terms is the production of identical copies and has emerged as the most forward field in biotechnology. Starting its roots in the latter half of 1900’s and gaining prominence since 1960, molecular cloning, and stem cell cloning along with organism cloning have been successful. Initially, the DNA of interest needs to be isolated to provide a DNA segment of suitable size. Subsequently, a ligation procedure is used where the amplified fragment is inserted into a vector. The vector (which is frequently circular) is linearized using restriction enzymes, and incubated with the fragment of interest under appropriate conditions with an enzyme called DNA ligase. Following ligation the vector with the insert of interest is transfected into cells. A number of alternative techniques are available for transformation be it electroporation, micro and macro injection to name a few. The transfected cells are then cultured and screened hence forming the basis of molecular cloning. Cloning of micro-organisms is also simple; it involves the growth of the microbes in a nutrient medium propagating cell division. Multicellular organisms have also been cloned, the most famous example of it being Dolly cloned in 1996 at Roslin Institute in Scotland. Cloning has since made substantial developments by cloning monkeys, camels etc. So maybe Jurassic park did demonstrate a great biotechnology technique. Honourable mention includes the American TV series Orphan Black.
  • Sherlock Holmes, an unforgettable character created in 1887 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is famously known as the detective with his unmistakable sense of observation and a devious ability to remember everything he has laid his eyes on; Sherlock Holmes does represent a higher form of intelligence. He is the only fictional character which is a part of the Royal Society of Chemistry, UK. The protagonist of another American TV series “Intelligence” shows the ability to be connected to the virtual world of information due to the presence of a chip which is inserted in his brain again demonstrating a league of above par intelligence in humans. The presence of beyond par intelligence might even become a reality.  Shenzhen BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute), which calls itself “The World’s Largest Genomics Organization” employs  Zhao Bowen, a “science prodigy” who dropped out of high school in his teens and now leads BGI’s Cognitive Genomics Group, a controversial project working to uncover the genetic basis of intelligence. Over 4,000 working in the field of bio-informatics are undertaking whole genome sequencing of 2,000 particularly bright people using the world’s most powerful DNA sequencers. They believe that it is only a matter of time before the alleles associated with intelligence reveal themselves. Michigan State University’s Stephen Hsu, who has been involved with the project, waxes lyrical on the potential of the project:

“The best humans have not been produced yet…If you want to produce smart humans, nice humans, honourable humans, caring humans, whatever it is, those are traits that are related to the presence or absence of certain genes and we’ll have much finer control over the types of people that are born in the future through this.” (biopoliticaltimes.org); so as we can see the day won’t be far when humans can supersede any given level of intelligence. Scientists claim that if the genes encoding for intelligence are known, nanotechnology can help in modifying the human brain to perceive virtual signals and even connect itself to the virtual world of communication completely hence any human can communicate with another by merely thinking about the person!

 

In a similar manner, there are various concepts that have been demonstrated in the world of entertainment showing us a wide pool of possibilities for the near future which might even come true. There are various ethical issues related to all these advancements but various organisations like UNESCO, American Society of Chemistry etc. take heed of the progress of such technologies.Image

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