Amazing innovations are transforming our world at a mind-boggling pace. They are disrupting economies as conventional technologies recede into the past and are replaced by new products and processes. I will give examples from a few fields.
Biotechnology involves the application of living systems or organisms to make products. It has been used in the production of golden rice which addresses the problem of vitamin A deficiency in children in developing countries. Around 200 million children and 20 million women suffer from vitamin A deficiency in 122 countries resulting in between one to two million deaths annually and 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness.
Swiss and German scientists have developed a new genetic variety of rice, called Golden Rice, which contains a pro-vitamin A. The latest variety of this rice – Golden Rice 2 – contains sufficient pro-vitamin A to provide the daily requirement of vitamin A via consumption of some 75g of rice.
Why do you get mangoes only in the summer? The reason is that there is a certain biological clock built into every plant which tells the plant when to flower and when to fruit. In a collaborative study involving scientists from the Peking University and Yale, it was found that the gene controlling the biological clock is the DET1 gene. Turning such genes on could result in the round-the-year availability of off-season crops. This could have a major impact on world food supply.
Some scientists have succeeded in inserting genes responsible for the luminescence in deep-sea jelly fish and making orchids glow in the dark just as fireflies do. Others have combined these genes with spider proteins that stick to cancer cells and make them glow. This allows surgeons to identify cancerous cells easily.
In another development, poliovirus has been genetically re-engineered to treat a fatal form of brain cancer. Genetically modified mosquitoes have been prepared to combat malaria and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved certain genetically-modified mosquitoes to combat Zika virus. In China, genetically-modified cows have been developed which produce milk almost identical to breast milk. Obesity is also now been linked to certain genes and gene therapy is being developed to tackle obesity. The process of ageing is now being understood in genetic terms and a number of genes involved in the ageing process have been identified.
Research in this field has led to the discovery of a number of compounds that not only slow down the ageing process, but actually reverse it. These compounds include resveratrol which are found in peanuts, grapes and red wine. When it was given to mice, the compound made old mice young again, changing their bodily features as well. Another compound metformin, an anti-diabetic drug, is dubbed an elixir of youth as it extends the life span in animals and prevents cancer. Its clinical testing is presently underway.
Is synthetic life around the corner? Craig Venter in the US has prepared a minimal genome – a genome with synthetic DNA which contains just 473 genes that are essential to life. When inserted into a bacterium whose natural DNA had been previously removed, the bacterium came alive and made a billion copies of itself. Another related area of research is that of tissue engineering. Stem cells are now beginning used to repair corneas, damaged hearts, kidneys or even brains. Stem cell research promises to transform medicine as it will be practiced in the future.
Did you know that if you cut off the tail of a lizard it grows back? However, if you cut off an arm of a person, it does not grow back. Why? Researchers at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and Arizona State University (ASU) have recently identified three genetic switches, known as microRNAs, which may hold the keys to regenerating muscles, cartilage, and spinal columns. These switches are able to turn genes on and off, and are associated with the regeneration of tails in green anole lizards. Do such switches exist and can they be turned on in human beings? An exciting new area of tissue engineering research has opened up.
Another area that promises to transform the world as we know it is artificial intelligence. A cap has been developed which allows mental commands to be transmitted to a small computer. Cars can then be driven purely by thought control and people who have been paralysed can operate motorised wheel chairs through mental commands. Artificial intelligence will, before long, be taking over from humans in almost every area of human activity. According to Stephen Hawking it poses a huge threat to our very existence on this planet.
The blind can now see with their tongue through a device. We see with our brain and the eyes are only a mechanism for image transfer. Wicab, a Wisconsin-based company, has developed a tiny camera that is fitted on glasses worn by a person who is visually impaired. The optical images from it are converted into electrical images and then transferred to a lollipop device that has some 400 sensors. When a person who is visually impaired places this “electronic lollipop” in his mouth, the image is transferred through the nerves in the tongue to the brain, restoring partial eyesight. This allows a person who is visually impaired to see lift buttons and distinguish between a knife and a fork.
Another area of intense research is that of new materials. A new class of materials, known as metamaterials, have been developed that can bend light. Objects covered by such materials become invisible. They are now being used to cloak submarines and tanks. Two professors at the Manchester University shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2010 for discovering graphene, a material made of pure carbon that is 200 times stronger than steel. Graphene is now finding a multitude of applications ranging from more powerful batteries, building materials and paper-thin televisions to powerful computers and pharmaceuticals. Self-healing materials have been developed. If you fire a bullet into them, the hole that is created disappears within seconds as the material repairs itself. Paper has been made from powdered stone mixed with a polymer and it is in many ways superior to normal paper.
Knowledge has now become the key currency for progress. India’s leadership has consistently given importance to education, science and engineering while the feudal landlords that control our parliament in Pakistan have constantly neglected it. It is time for a deep-rooted change in the manner that we select our leaders.
The writer is chairman of UN ESCAP Committee on Science Technology &
Innovation and former chairman of the HEC.