Another area of great interest is the application of biological aspects of nature to create new technologies. New technologies are being discovered from areas of the natural world that we once thought were of no benefit to mankind. It is an exciting field of study simply because it is limited only by our imagination and the ability to identify solutions hidden within the natural world.
The study of venoms has developed into a formal field of research. This focused interest is fuelled by the possibility of discovering revolutionary medical science through venoms and their individual components. With over 100,000 different venomous animals in the world the opportunities for developing new biotechnology is almost unlimited.
The indian cobra (Naja naja) is responsible for thousands of deaths per year in India. However, according to research, its venom holds the secret to treat a disease that affects more than 350 million people worldwide: Arthritis.
The venom of the wandering spider (Phoneutria nigriventa) in South America has aroused a great deal of the interest. In male patients, the bite from this spider cause long lasting erections. Considering that Viagra sales in 2015 topped $1.7bn, the venom from this spider is something to get very excited about. It is estimated that in 2019, the market value for these drugs will be $3.4bn. Imagine if mankind could isolate and replicate the responsible component.
Components of black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) venom have been isolated to produce some of the worlds most effective pain killers that have no side effects and are up to 7 times more effective than morphine.
Venom from the death stalker scorpion (Androctonus crassicauda) is being used to treat certain cancers as well as Alzheimer’s disease.
The gila monster (Heloderma suspectum) is a venomous lizard from northern America whose venom is being used to create a treatment for diabetes. The World Health Organisation estimated that there were 422 million people with Type 2 diabetes in 2014.
The naturally occurring components of venom provide a convenient point of origin. Once we have a basic understanding of how these venoms “work”, we have a clue to their application. The components of these venoms can then be artificially synthesized and manufactured.
Spider silk has been given much attention over the past few years. It is antibacterial, it can stretch over 300% of its own length, and with a higher tensile strength than steel, it is in a class of its own. The Canadian company Nexia, has developed genetically modified goats that produce spider silk proteins in their milk. Although this has solved the problem of producing spider silk in large quantities, the project failed to produce an end product as they couldn’t realign these proteins into fibres.
In the 1800’s, life expectancy of the average person was only 36. After Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming discovered the properties of penicillin mould in 1926, life expectancy increased to 50.
Other examples of biotechnology include:
- Waste water, food waste and raw sewerage treatment modelled by how forest litter decomposes.
- A wood-glue that is based upon the same chemical process that enables the blue mussel to attach themselves to rocks.
- Preserving biological materials using technology gained from the ability of extremophiles to survive extreme dry habitats.
- Industrial waste water and sewerage treatment modelled upon natural aquatic systems.
- Temperature stable vaccines that are based upon the temperature resistance of water bears (tardigrada).
The elegant design of nature offers inherent solutions to natural problems. However, we must be careful to use biotechnology only in its original and pure form. Tampering with nature at a genetic level has already caused unexpected consequences that have resulted in harmful knock-on effects.
History has taught us is that trying to improve on nature often results in unintended consequences. Biotechnology from genetically modified organisms poses a threat to biodiversity and raises many ethical questions regarding the way it is created, marketed and consumed.