It was the decade that launched a new age of science, and it came as no surprise. Researchers had foreseen the rise of biology in the 1990s and expected nothing less than a transformation of modern medicine and giant leaps in our knowledge of life on Earth.
They cannot be disappointed. In the last 10 years, scientists have looked deeper into the mechanics of life than ever before. They have learned how molecules come together to make living organisms, how biological glitches cause common diseases, and have come within a whisker of creating new lifeforms in the laboratory.
Genetics was at the heart of the revolution. Scientific and technological advances allowed researchers to read every letter of an organism’s genome. The letters make genes, which are the templates for proteins that make cells. And the cells, in the tens of trillions, build the animals and plants around us.
The first major achievement came in 2001 when the 13-year, US$4 billion human genome project produced the first draft of the human genetic code. The huge task became a race between a global consortium of publicly funded scientists and an American genetics pioneer, Craig Venter. It was, said Venter, “the most important scientific effort humankind has ever mounted.”
The human genome project put the essence of humanity into numbers. Our genetic code is 6 billion letters long, grouped into around 25,000 genes. Francis Collins, head of the public genome project, declared it the first draft of our own book of life.
“We’ve read it from cover to cover and we’ve discovered some pretty amazing surprises,” he said.
Scientific revolutions have a long history of taking humans down a peg or two, and the genetics revolution was no different. As more organisms submitted to genetic analysis, scientists learned that humans were not so different from other organisms. We share more than 95 percent of our genes with chimps and around 30 percent with bananas. Nematode worms, which grow to 1mm long, have a similar number of genes to humans.
Today, scientists have read the genomes of more than 180 organisms. They include the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, and a host of other pathogens, as well as rice, maize and other food crops. The information gives scientists insights to combat disease and make dietary staples more resilient.
Genetics came into its own when sequencing technology became cheap and fast. It allowed scientists to compare the genomes of tens of thousands of sick and healthy people and find flaws in DNA that lead to a vast range of ailments. The list so far includes defects linked to diabetes, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease.
The role of genetics in disease has turned out to be more subtle than many scientists had hoped. Only rarely does one gene cause one ailment. More often several genes play a role, with each raising the risk of illness. Who falls sick is down to a complex interplay between a multitude of genes and environmental factors such as diet and lifestyle.
Scientists now know the picture is more complicated still. Almost every cell in the body contains the genetic code in full, but every tissue uses it differently. Some genes are turned up while others are silenced to keep heart cells beating and brain cells firing. Sometimes, this exquisite control breaks down, causing cancer and other diseases. A global effort to understand this “epigenome” is under way.
As genetic sequencing became more advanced, it was put to use in ways that had only existed in science fiction. In 2008, scientists pieced together the genome of a woolly mammoth dug out of the Siberian permafrost. A year later, researchers extracted fragments of ancient DNA from the fossilized bones of Neanderthals and created the first genetic profile of a human relative. Comparisons revealed genes involved in speech and language that shed light on what it means to be human.
The new age of biology brought scientists into conflict with opponents who considered some of their experiments offensive — above all, the use of embryonic stem cells, collected from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization treatment, to regenerate damaged or diseased organs. The research was hampered by restrictions laid down by the administration of former president George W. Bush in the US and independently in other countries.
New stem cell technology sidesteps the moral controversy by using genetic tricks to turn adult skin tissue into cells that behave just like embryonic stem cells. Scientists have tailor-made these induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from patients’ own skin. These have enormous advantages. They can be used to study a patient’s disease in unprecedented detail, and can potentially grow into replacement tissues that will not be rejected by the immune system. In the next decade, scientists will begin clinical trials to treat patients with iPS cells, a revolution expected to have a profound impact on public health.
Technology is famously neutral. It is how we choose to use it that governs whether it is good or bad for the world. That point was demonstrated unequivocally when several research groups reconstructed lethal viruses in their laboratories. Scientists at the State University of New York built the poliovirus from scratch. A few years later, scientists with the US army resurrected the 1918 Spanish flu virus, which had killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.
Next year, scientists could reveal the first artificial living organism. Venter, who began the decade with an acrimonious battle over the human genome, hopes to create the first “trillion-dollar organisms” to produce hydrogen for the green economy.
If he succeeds, predictions of a new age of biology will look all the more prescient.
Since COVID-19 broke out in Taiwan, there has been a fair amount of news regarding discrimination and “witch hunts” against medical personnel, people under self-quarantine and other targets, such as the students of a school where an infection was discovered. Quarantine breakers are almost certainly on the loose and it is only natural for people to be vigilant. One in Chiayi was found by accident at a traffic stop because his helmet was not fastened. However, those who follow the rules by quarantining themselves should be encouraged to keep up the good work in a difficult situation, instead of being
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator-at-large Wu Sz-huai (吳斯懷) has said that there is a huge difference between Chinese military aircraft circling Taiwan along the edges of its airspace and invading Taiwan’s airspace. He also said that whether it is US or Chinese aircraft flying along or encircling Taiwan’s airspace, there is no legal basis to say that such actions imply a clear provocation of Taiwan, and asked the Ministry of National Defense not to mislead the public. People who hear this might think that it is not a very Taiwanese thing to say. US military activity in the vicinity of Taiwan
As the nation welcomes home Taiwanese who had been stranded in China’s Hubei Province — arguably one of the most dangerous places on Earth since the novel coronavirus outbreak began in its capital, Wuhan, late last year — problems surrounding the “quasi-charter flights” that brought them back have been largely overlooked. The media used the term to describe the two flights dispatched by Taiwan’s state-run China Airlines because they do not count as charter flights. Taiwanese wanting to board those flights had to travel — most likely by train — more than 1,000km from Hubei to Shanghai Pudong International Airport
As the COVID-19 pandemic spins out of control, many parts of the world are experiencing shortages of medical masks and other protective equipment. I am studying in Washington state, which at the time of writing is the US state that has suffered the largest number of deaths from the novel coronavirus. The week before last, UW Medicine — an organization that includes the University of Washington School of Medicine and associated medical centers and clinics — sent its volunteers an e-mail asking the public to make masks and donate them to hospitals. Attached to the message was a mask donation