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The Biotechnology Revolution: Foreword by Aaron Ciechanover
Comprehensive Biotechnology, Third Edition, unifies in a single source the perspectives of researchers in different fields such as biochemistry, agriculture, engineering, biomedicine and environmental science. Read about the `biotechnology revolution` in the foreword from Aaron Ciechanover, Chemistry Nobel prize winner in 2004.
For a long time, biotechnology has been the young stepson of basic biomedical sciences, identified mostly with the food industry and a bit later with development of vaccines. It was not highly regarded by basic researchers who focused on deciphering—among other problems—metabolic pathways, the genetic code, and the underlying pathogenetic mechanisms of diseases. Drug discovery at the beginning of the century was incidental (e.g., aspirin, penicillin, and even insulin), and the idea of curing a genetic disease was not even a dream—they were regarded irreversible. Nobody has dreamt on the possibility of genetic manipulation. This landscape has since changed dramatically, and biotechnology has become the respected inseparable Siamese twin of basic biomedical sciences. Efforts to translate fundamental discoveries into useful products are recognized now as an important and integral hallmark in both academia and industry, and the traditional border between the two has lost its sharp lines of demarcation. In many places around the world, we witness a process where the biotechnological industry, and mostly its research and development branches, is growing and developing around universities—which serve as nuclei of crystallization for their flourishing, generating a new type of collaborative ecosystem we have not known before. MIT and the pharmaceutical industry in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, are probably prime examples of this process.
The border between science and its technological applications has almost disappeared. The fences among faculties of biomedical basic sciences, medicine, biotechnology, chemical engineering, chemistry, physics, and civil engineering, among many others, have been lowered, and they hire these days—more and more frequently—scientists with similar profiles—actually competing with one another. Industry is investing more and more efforts in research and development, and has tightened its ties with academia. Consequently, it is employing leading and world-renowned scientists that academia would have been proud to have, and is using state-of-the-art, most advanced, and innovative technologies that are far from being just scaled up pilot processes developed in academia. Working nowadays in the biotechnological industry is no longer regarded as a second choice for academics, and the movement between the two enterprises has become bilateral compared to the unilaterality that domineered the relationship between the two for a long time: experience in industry is regarded nowadays by many in academia as an advantage. Not surprisingly, even the basic nomenclature is changing, and biotechnology has lost its defined traditional boundaries and merged into the actively evolving conglomerate of biomedical sciences, along with cell and molecular biology, immunology, biochemistry, genetics, agriculture, biomedical engineering, and pharmaceutical sciences, among other areas.
What are the roots of this revolution? When did it all start? Like many other revolutions, including political ones, we can easily identify points of time when they erupted, but find it more difficult to identify the underlying streams and developments that led to the eruption. It is widely accepted—I think—that the seeds of the revolution were planted with the deciphering of the mechanisms that underlie the central dogma of biology—the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA which immediately disclosed its mechanism of replication, and then the discovery of mRNA, the specific tRNAs, and the mechanisms of protein translation. These discoveries that were made in the 1950s led to the development of an avalanche of subsequent technologies which enabled us to sequence and then manipulate genes, express or silence them in different organisms—from viruses to mammals—to analyze the other elements in the central dogma that are located hierarchically above DNA (RNA, proteins, small molecules—e.g., the different omics). Last but not least, they enabled us to edit genes (CRISPR-Cas) and to generate proteins that are better in many aspects than the natural ones (e.g., synthetic biology).
There is currently no field in biomedical and life sciences that is not deeply involved with biotechnology: from the development of vaccines and small molecules, through drug targeting in tissue-specific liposomes or nanoparticles; from the development of insects- or fungi-resistant plants to animals that were “cleaned” from viral-hosting genes and that have humanized HLA system (and can serve therefore as an unlimited source of organs for transplantation); from yeast that were engineered to generate antimalarial drugs (e.g., artemisinin), to microorganisms that can make cannabinoids or odd chain fatty acids that are rare in nature; from mammals that secrete protein hormones and/or antibodies in their milk or to their circulation, to microorganisms that dissolve biofilms or clean water from biological or chemical contaminants—the list in nonexhaustive. The newly evolving biotechnology will revolutionize our lives in every aspect—from preventive and therapeutic medicine, to agriculture, to biomanufacturing and the environment.
The third edition of Comprehensive Biotechnology tries to encompass all these developments and in particular the more recent ones. However, due to the exponential growth of the field, the task is daunting, and is becoming more and more difficult. Can we prophesize that future editions will have to devote a separate volume to each of the numerous subfields of what used to be “classical” biotechnology—one devoted to development of vaccines, the other to microorganisms that produce small molecules, and another one to engineered plants that can grow without using insecticides or fungicides. When this will happen, we shall be able to say that the revolution of biotechnology is completed, no need to see it as a separate area.
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