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May 23, 2000

How life sciences can drive economic development

For a detailed story on the May 2000 conference on genomics and life sciences sponsored by The Business Council and Cornell University, click here.

Advances in many fields are being made possible by new knowledge in the life sciences in general, and genomics in particular, according to Steven Tanksley, a professor of plant breeding at Cornell University.

Tanksley outlined several areas of potential growth in life-sciences related fields as part of his proposal that government, higher education, and industry in New York State collaborate to develop a "corridor" devoted to life sciences and genomics. Tanksley submitted the proposal May 18 at a two-day conference sponsored by The Business Council of New York State and Cornell University. The conference was entitled The Genomics Revolution: Implications for New York State.

Specific areas that Tanksley identified as promising areas for new developments include:

Health care: A fuller understanding of human genes may make possible not only new drugs and therapies but entirely new approaches to pharmacology, treatment of disease, and health care in general.

Much of the current focus of health care is on the treatment of disease, especially treatment to provide relief from symptoms. In the case of diseases caused by genetic mutations, advances in genomics will make possible new treatments that focus on the cause of the disease. Moreover, drugs and other therapies will be able to be fashioned with much more precision than is currently possible. For example, if the genetic basis of a specific disease is understood, new drug therapies that redress the cause may be possible. And because the same disease will have different effects on different individuals because of differences in their genetic makeups, it may even be possible and desirable to develop drug treatments that are tailored to specific individuals.

And therapies that stimulate the body's own cells to fight diseases, or even to regenerate or repair damaged tissues or organs, may also emerge.

Agriculture: Plants are the foundation of the human food supply, and an improved understanding of plant genes will make possible agriculture that is more productive and at the same time less stressful to the environment. As plant genomics expands, advances that will become possible include plants that can better protect themselves from insects and disease, better utilize water and mineral resources, and produce more nutritional food for human consumption.

Manufacturing: Advances in plant genomics will also make plants the source of an increasing amount of the raw materials used in manufacturing, such as fuel, biopolymers, oils, fibers, and pharmaceuticals. In particular, biopolymers that are now extracted from petroleum will in the future be derived increasingly from plants. And it has already been shown that plants can be modified to produce the basic organic building blocks for biodegradable plastics.

Computer science and bioinformatics: The potential of genomics and the life sciences will drive important advances in the related fields of computation genomics and bioinformatics, which focus on developing and refining the computing and database-management tools that genomics and the life sciences need to secure, store, organize, and manage the huge amounts of new data being produced by research in genomics and the life sciences. Computation genomics and bioinformatics are in their own right an important opportunity for intellectual and technical growth that offer potentially enormous benefits for both academic and business enterprises.

Life sciences engineering and nanobiotechnology: Advances in genomics will make necessary, and will create, new engineering discoveries that will allow information to be gathered from biological systems more quickly and precisely. The emerging field of nanobiotechnology is an emerging engineering field that seeks to develop extremely small tools that can extract and explore genetic information in a manner that could not be imagined even five years ago. Nanobiotechnology is already making possible the scaling down of current DNA sequencing technology, which allows sequencing to take place much faster. It is also making possible new formats for sequence determination that are also accelerating the process of DNA sequencing. Nanofabrication techniques may make possible biosensor and biomedical applications include nanoscale electrodes to be implanted in the brain to treat neurological disorders or minute glucose sensors that could be implanted in diabetics and even coupled with miniature insulin pumps.

Chemistry and structural biology: New technical and computational tools developed in genomics and life sciences research will open the door to understanding all proteins. DNA is the blueprint of proteins. At present, the three-dimensional structures of less than 1 percent of all human proteins are known, and only .01 percent of proteins of importance to human nutrition and health have a known structure.

Biodiversity and natural resources: Advances in genomics technologies will provide new ways to explore, protect, and use biodiversity, since differences in DNA sequences is the foundation of biodiversity.