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Bright Future, Lingering Controversies - Controversies In Agricultural Biotechnology, Controversies In Health-care Biotechnology

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Biotechnology is a rapidly expanding industry. Revenues from health-care biotechnology in the United States increased from $8 billion in 1992 to $39 billion in 2003, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization. In 2005, 222 million acres in twenty-one countries were planted with biotechnology crops, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

The biotechnology industry is concentrated in particular regions, however. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Commerce Technology Administration and Bureau of Industry and Security conducted a survey of biotechnology companies. They found that 68 percent of the companies with fewer than 100 employees were located in just six states. These were California, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

In the future, biotechnology companies may be spread more widely around the world. Countries such as China and India are strengthening their abilities in science and technology. People in some developing nations will work for lower salaries than those in the United States. Building offices, laboratories, and manufacturing plants is also cheaper in other nations. This could cause some American-based companies to decide to relocate. New start-up biotech companies may avoid the United States altogether. Currently, the United States is a leader in biotechnology research, but other countries are trying to catch up.

The 2002 survey of biotechnology companies by the U.S. Department of Commerce Technology Administration and Bureau of Industry and Security also asked about employees' jobs. Among technical employees of biotechnology companies:

  • 6.2 percent were computer specialists focused on research and development
  • 55.3 percent were scientists
  • 8.3 percent were engineers
  • 30.3 percent were technicians

Computer specialist was the fastest-growing technical occupation in the field of biotechnology. Few people have in-depth knowledge of both biology and computers. Those who do are in great demand.

Because the biotechnology industry is so focused on research and development, biotechnology could grow and change in ways that cannot yet be predicted. Much depends on what researchers discover is and is not possible, what the world's most pressing needs and wants are, and what new products and technologies emerge from the laboratories. Because of this, in ten or twenty years, the in-demand jobs in biotechnology may be ones that do not exist today. In 2000, Time magazine predicted the ten hottest jobs of the twenty-first century. Four were related to biotechnology: tissue engineers, “frankenfood” monitors, gene programmers, and “pharmers.”

Tissue engineers will use stem cells to create human organs and other tissues. Because these organs would contain the patient's DNA, researchers hope they would not be rejected by the body the way donor organs are. Rejection of transplanted organs can cause transplants to fail. There is also a chronic shortage of donor organs and long waiting lists of patients who need organs. So, any method for developing organs using the patient's own cells and DNA would be a great leap forward—one that could prolong and save thousands of lives.

“Frankenfood” is a word that critics of biotechnology sometimes use to refer to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Frankenfood monitors will keep an eye on genetically modified plants and animals. One of the major concerns regarding GMOs is that genetically modified crops will spread—via wind, birds, and foraging animals—beyond the boundaries of their farms and mix with wild populations and traditionally grown crops. Monitors will make sure that GMOs stay where they are supposed to be.

Gene programmers will use a computerized copy of a person's DNA to locate and identify possible problems that may lead to disease. Doctors will then be able to write personalized prescriptions of gene therapies and other drugs. These treatments may be able to prevent some cancers and other diseases that depend at least partly on genetics.

“Pharmers” will raise crops and livestock that have been genetically engineered to produce drugs and other medical treatments (the “ph” in pharmer comes from “pharmaceutical,” another word for drug). These organisms contain foreign genes that cause them to make a lot of a certain protein or chemical, just like the bacteria used in industrial biotechnology. But instead of purifying the protein away from the bacteria, one can simply eat the plant or animal to gain the beneficial effects of the protein. Researchers are already growing tomatoes with vaccines in them and raising goats that produce milk that includes an anti-clotting drug.

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