What an exciting time to be a bio-based engineer! Biology is the new frontier of technological progress, and it is difficult to fathom how much is going on. Bioengineers, biomedical engineers, biological engineers, and a host of other engineers (whether with or without some form of “biology” in their titles) who use, adapt, or interface with some part of biology are finding themselves at the forefront of modern technology. Furthermore, there are vast numbers of opportunities for creative solutions to problems important to us all.
Take a look at the following list of areas of intense activity (not in any particular order).
CRISPR. Short for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” CRISPR has to be at the top of the list because it is such a revolutionary means to edit genomes (and it will become even more powerful in the near future).
Artificial intelligence and artificial emotional intelligence. These technologies will allow innumerable smart devices that can aid people, other living beings, and environments to benefit from accumulated knowledge that is more massive than any single person could be expected to remember and apply.
Brain functioning. We are now beginning to understand in which parts of the brain different behaviors and actions are initiated and controlled. The knowledge from these studies can help to cure diseases and overcome neural limitations.
Wearable sensors. These are allowing health-condition monitoring to an extent that has not been achievable before. Related to wearable sensors for humans are the many types of remote sensors for environmentalcondition monitoring.
Imaging. The panoply of imaging techniques has been vastly expanded in recent years, to such an extent that the previously unseen can now be viewed. There are imaging techniques that range from viewing individual molecules in vivo all the way to determining the proper functioning of organs and systems.
Biomarkers. These are indirect indicators of particular biological function conditions, often used for defining human disease states but also for environmental monitoring. Biomarkers are more easily observed than direct measures of the conditions they are designed to monitor.
Computational aids. Advances in hardware and software improve the support of all aspects of biobased engineering and technology, including providing the ability to analyze and draw rational conclusions from big data.
Biomaterials and biocompatible materials. Steady progress in biomaterials discovery and development is making implants more reliable and successful.
Synthetic biology. New or vastly modified organisms will be able to perform novel activities or produce new or improved products.
Epigenetics, gene expression, and gene repression. The mere presence of a gene is not the final determinant of the appearance of the characteristic it governs. Research is showing the way toward treating, eliminating, or ameliorating undesirable or dangerous genetic states.
Functional genomics and proteomics. Action pathways from genetic blueprints to final macroscopic characteristics are being defined, with the result that better treatments for health conditions are being developed.
Artificial organs and xenographic organs. Type 1 diabetes, in particular, is rampant and in need of a treatment that does not depend on insulin injections. Improvements in artificial pancreases and growing pancreatic cells in other animals may soon make this condition a minor disability.
Microbiome and its functions. For every human cell, there are ten single, foreign cells on and in the human body. It is no wonder that these “nonhuman” cells, including bacteria and other microscopic organisms, have an effect on human health and behavior. The extent of these influences is just now being elucidated, and it turns out that the influences are profound.
Genetically modified crops. Producing food and fiber in nonoptimal environments and inserting genes to engineer more nutritionous foods have had far-reaching influences on agriculture and diets. There are, however, many who object to the insertion of genes from other species into plants and animals eaten as food, so the use of CRISPR gene editing, in which genetic variants are taken from the same species or single gene repression is enacted, may soon overtake genetic modification as the chief means to improve agricultural production.
Exobiology and new forms of life. We are on the cusp of discovering whether life from other worlds can exist based on completely different foundational forms. Extremophiles found on Earth attest to the ability of life to thrive in environments thought to be too harsh to support it. We are in for eye-opening discoveries that could have deep consequences regarding what we are able to do with biological forms.
Derived stem cells. The technology to form pluripotent stem cells from single somatic cells is maturing, and it will strongly influence how we approach certain degenerative diseases, aging, cloning, in vitro fertilization, and the production of replacement organs.
Geriatric amelioration. It is said that the first person to reach a ripe old age of 150 years has already been born. If so, that person will benefit from knowledge gained about the aging process and the means to slow it down (or, perhaps, even reverse it). The problem will be whether an acceptable quality of life can be maintained throughout the entire 150 years or so.
Nutritional understanding. Discovering that certain fats can be good for you rather than bad is an indication that we are learning more about healthy diets than we thought we knew before. Diets are one of the determinants to a healthy life, along with adequate sleep, a healthy mirobiome, satisfactory social interactions, exercise, and, of course, a strong genetic basis.
Emergency medicine. We already knew about the “golden hour,” that interval defined by R. Adams Cowley as the time during which blood pressure needs to be stabilized to give a trauma victim the best chance to survive. Improvements in emergency medicine, made especially urgent by battlefield and terrorist casualties, are vastly improving the chances of victim survival (even though the cost may involve later dealing with disabilities).
Surgical procedures. In utero surgery on a fetus is now being performed, if not routinely, then at least not extraordinarily. Laproscopic surgical techniques have reduced surgical traumas and shortened recovery times. Imaging and robotics have allowed more precise and successful surgeries than ever before. Look for these improvements to continue.
Immunotherapy. Using the body’s own defense against cancer and other aberrant conditions has been made possible through knowledge about T-cell functioning, abnormal cell surface markers, and cell culture in vitro. Immunotherapy may prove to be the magic bullet for dealing with cancerous growths, for example. Immune systems in humans and other organisms are highly redundant but very effective. Learning about how immune processes operate can be the ultimate cure for many diseases.
Biomimetics. Optimal solutions for many problems encountered during one’s lifetime have been developed over many generations. These solutions involve things besides disease immunities, defenses against external threats, and the functioning of digestive mechanisms; they also include optimal solutions for social organization, transportation, and environmental responses. Studying the way different organisms act has led to improvements in Internet search procedures, package delivery, and transportation issues.
Displays. Human-factors engineering involves, among other things, better communication between human operators and the machines or control panels they are monitoring. With improved displays come safer cars and airplanes, more secure manufacturing operations, and more efficient production.
Interspecies communication. Being able to tell the exact physical and emotional state of a member of another species is important for the care of pets, wild animals housed in zoological parks or otherwise confined, and agricultural livestock. Many improvements in interspecies communication have resulted from human interest in the ethical treatment of animals. Some may even hope to see plants treated similarly.
Robotics. We cannot forget that robots is becoming an important element in medicine (the daVinci surgical robot and robotic nurses, for example), for companionship, to create lifelike prosthetics, for automated driving, and in the performance of menial tasks. The wider use of robots can have profound effects on daily living and social interactions.
Environmental understanding. New knowledge is leading to improvements in the breeding and preservation of rare species, interspecies behavioral and ecological interactions, environmental sustainability, and quality of life.
Food processing. It is important to stretch food supplies as far as possible if we are to feed the growing human population. Up to 50% of the world’s food production is lost due to spoilage or waste. Processing can help save wasted food and can also make food more nutritious, as with meat substitutes made from plant products, which are more efficiently produced than meat from animals.
These are just a few of the possible topics to which biobased engineers can contribute. We live in exciting times, and there is little excuse for someone who cannot find an area of interest in this list (or any of the other possible topics not itemized here). If one is not interested in actually developing any of the technologies associated with those detailed here, then there are still other opportunities: in their applications to individuals, for example, or explaining them to others, underwriting any risks associated with them, commercializing them, or dealing with legal issues they may involve such as patenting.
The future is bright, as long as these technologies are handled correctly. Perhaps most importantly, we need engineers willing to apply reasonable ethics and develop appropriate bounds for each of these items. The future is up to all of us.