|Molecular and cellular biology
Basic research on cells which integrates biology, chemistry, engineering and computer science. There are two major areas of research. The first focuses on manipulating DNA to produce a desired effect. Example: Human insulin needed by diabetics can be made in a lab by cutting from a strand of human DNA the sequence that controls the production of insulin and pasting it to an E. Coli cell. The E. Coli cell will then produce insulin.
The second area of research focuses on producing customized disease- and infection-fighting antibodies similar to those the human body produces naturally to fight off common colds and other illnesses. The customized antibodies, called monoclonal antibodies, are designed to fight diseases our bodies cannot fight adequately. Example: a skin cancer vaccine.
Bioinformatics is the use of information technology to store and analyze genetic information. Bioinformatic researchers develop and apply computing tools to extract the secrets of the life and death of organisms from the genetic blueprints and molecular structure stored in digital collections. Traditionally, biology research begins with a hypothesis. A biologist then collects experimental data and analyzes them to support or disprove the hypothesis. However, information technology is changing this sequence of events. Today, large-scale exploratory experiments are gathering as much data as possible. The Human Genome Project, for example, is creating an inventory of all 3 billion amino acids in the human genetic blueprint. So now when a biologist forms a hypothesis, the data may already be in such a collection, just a computer search away. Bioinformatics is expected to help scientists discover the genetic basis of many diseases and accelerate the development of more effective pharmaceutics to combat them.
Medical devices are manufactured instruments used inside or outside the body to diagnose or treat a medical condition. Medical technologies range from athletic knee braces to microscopic devices injected into the blood stream of a diabetic to monitor blood sugar levels and automatically trigger an insulin pump. This technology eliminates the need for daily insulin injections.
Pharmaceuticals include medicines, vaccines, diagnostics and gene therapy. By using modern molecular and cellular biology in human health, researchers have been able to create products to help the body fight diseases, allow doctors to detect a wider variety of diseases and correct hereditary genetic disorders like PKU, which can cause severe mental retardation in children.
Bio-agriculture improves the quality of seed grains to increase crop yields, increases protein levels in forage crops and creates species of plants that are more resistant to disease, insects and viruses, as well as drought, floods, temperature extremes and salinity. Bio-agriculture can help produce more nutritious foods containing higher levels of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene and other substances the body needs.
Bio-agriculture reduces production costs and helps the environment by reducing the use of pesticides, and reduces environmental degradation by reducing the need for irrigation.
Bioremediation uses microscopic organisms, whether naturally-occurring or genetically-altered, for a wide variety of applications in pollution control and prevention. Organisms can "eat" or, more accurately, degrade or transform toxic waste and oil spills into harmless byproducts. In some cases, nutrients are used to stimulate the growth of naturally-occurring organisms, while, in other cases, organisms are introduced to stimulate the process.
Environmental diagnostics use a combination of organisms and computer technology to create devices which can detect pollutants in water or air before they are released into the environment. This technology is being used by sewage treatment plants and coal-fired generators.
Gene chips--also known as DNA chips or bio chips--are used for the rapid analysis of genetic material. Someday gene chips are expected to provide a method for diagnosing tumors, infections and other diseases.
Doctors will be able to perform a simple test using a bio chip and related instruments to instantly diagnose what is afflicting their patients. Or, they may use gene chips to obtain a full genetic profile of their patients to determine if they’re predisposed to a genetic disease. Gene chips are encoded with an array of synthetic gene fragments that reveal any corresponding genes in tissue or blood samples. A chip in development by Affymetrix distinguishes mutations in the main enzymes of HIV. Glaxo Wellcome is working with the company to correlate these variations with treatment response in patients, enabling doctors to prescribe drug combinations that work most effectively against individual HIV strains.
Manufacturing and material design
DNA and living cells are being used to produce a variety of products, including DNA-based computers, plastics, chemicals, corn-based ethanol fuels, animal feed, silk and human tissue a great benefit for burn victims.
Gene therapy is the use of genes and the techniques of genetic engineering in the treatment of a genetic disorders or chronic disease. There are many techniques of gene therapy, most of them still in experimental stages.
One technique for treating hereditary problems involves removing cells from a patient, fortifying them with healthy copies of the defective gene, and reinjecting the fortified cells into the patient. Another involves inserting a gene into an inactivated or non-virulent virus and using the virus’s infective capabilities to carry the desired gene into the patient’s cells.
A liposome, a tiny fat-encased pouch that can traverse cell membranes, is also sometimes used to transport a gene into a cell. Once inserted into body cells, the gene may produce an essential chemical that the patient’s body cannot, remove or render harmless a substance or gene that is causing or contributing to disease, or expose certain cells, especially cancerous cells, to attack by conventional drugs. Like drugs, gene therapy techniques must be approved by the federal government.