When Clarke wrote those words a generation ago, how many people thought that in the early years of the 21st century farmers would routinely plant genetically-enhanced crops? The thought certainly never entered my mind. Perhaps one of Clarke’s fellow science-fiction novelists predicted it.
Whatever the case, what once seemed impossible isn’t merely possible–it’s downright routine. Nothing is more ordinary than biotech food these days. We eat it every day. Earlier this year, a farmer somewhere in the world planted humanity’s one billionth acre of biotech crops. In the coming weeks, that acre will be harvested.
Biotechnology has transformed our lives. The transformation will not only continue but the pace of change will actually quicken. Here are a few of my favorite potential developments, culled from newspaper clippings in recent months:
Weeds that detect land mines: As many as 20,000 people are killed or maimed by land mines each year. Many of these victims are children who have the misfortune to wander across unmarked fields. Clearing these hazards is a moral imperative, as well as an economic necessity–a lot of farmland is now abandoned because of land mines. Getting rid of them is slow, expensive, and dangerous. But now Danish scientists have produced a genetically modified version of thale-cress, a small flowering weed. Their version turns red when it encounters nitrogen oxide, a gas commonly found in explosives. If it proves effective, farmers and others could spread the seed in a suspect field and wait a few weeks to see what happens. “The symbolism couldn’t be more lovely,” commented the New York Times, “the brutality of land mines quelled by a humble flower.”
The soybean club for men: Japanese researchers say they’ve designed a soybean that fights hair loss. First, they discovered a substance found in an amino acid compound that occurs naturally in egg whites. Then they figured out a way to produce it in soybeans. Finally, they shaved a bunch of mice. Those that consumed their concoction grew back their hair at a noticeably faster rate. “If we can confirm the safety of the soybean, we may be able to promote hair growth or stop hair loss just by eating them,” said a scientist at Kyoto University.
Healthy tobacco: Perhaps smoking won’t ever be healthy–but biotechnology may make it less deadly. An American company, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, says that it has discovered a tobacco gene that carries the code for an important nicotine-related enzyme. If scientists learn how to suppress this enzyme through biotechnology, they may eliminate one of tobacco’s carcinogenic properties.
Plants vs. pollution: In Connecticut, genetically modified cottonwood trees extract mercury from the ground of a former factory site. In California, genetically altered mustard plants suck selenium from the soil in places where irrigation has left large and potentially poisonous deposits. At Purdue University, scientists are breeding trees that retain more carbon–a characteristic that might prove effective in combating global warming.
Medical milk: A group in New Zealand wants to create a genetically enhanced dairy herd that produces milk containing a special protein that stimulates the immune system and fights disease. It occurs naturally in mother’s milk, but through biotechnology it may be able to find a place in the ordinary gallons we keep in our refrigerators.
Vaccines: One of the great growth areas for plant biotechnology is in producing vaccines to treat and ultimately fight terrible diseases. People are already talking about pharmaceutical farming, also known as “pharming.” In Arizona, researchers say they’ve developed a potato that combats hepatitis. Scientists elsewhere hope they can use tomato plants to produce a vaccine against the virus causing SARS.
I’m tempted to say that I’d be happy if just one or two of these concepts becomes a reality. But perhaps that’s too conservative. As Arthur C. Clarke might say, never bet against the impossible.