Medicines that can cure absolutely anything. Enough and more food to feed every single living being on Earth. And robots that not only speak but also understand human emotions. Pipe dreams, you think? Not really. All this and more might soon see light of the day thanks to cutting edge technologies being used in the fields of science, health, food, agriculture and environment. We at Gobar Times decided to give you an update on the latest studies and advancements in these fields. The world around us is changing rapidly. You do not want to left behind, do you?
Oncologist and entrepreneur David Agus and Kristin Loberg would have you believe that diseases, as deadly as cancer and as common as cold, can all be eradicated. Authors of the recently launched The End of Illness talk about ‘proteomics’, a scientific branch invented twenty years ago, that can possibly be ‘the beginning of the end of all our illnesses’. Surely you are wondering HOW?
Here is the concept. Proteomics stems from proteins and genomes. Our genes produce proteins which decide how our cells, tissues and organs work. For instance, if you eat very greasy food, the genes kick in proteins that induce nausea. So if your body is afflicted by cancer, the DNA proteins also change in a specific manner (called a protein signature). Now here’s the clincher: if researchers can detect these protein signatures in the blood stream, urine or saliva, they can identify when and how the disease progressed. Armed with this information, doctors will be able to detect diseases such as cancer even before the symptoms are discovered, something that is impossible to do right now.
Healthcare: Affordable and advanced
The field of medicine might have witnessed spectacular progress but the harsh reality is that not everyone can afford the best of healthcare facilities. Technology is gradually altering this. Computer systems like ‘The Becton Dickinson FocalPoint Imaging System’ has nearly doubled the speed of an operation while also detecting cell abnormalities. And remember IBM’s Jeopardy, the supercomputer Watson that promises to help physicians determine diagnoses and treatment options for complicated health issues? It may soon be used as a diagnostic tool too. Is it just a matter of time before advanced healthcare facilities will be available to people at a cheaper price? Amen to that!
Tracing genetic history
Physicians and genetic counsellors will soon be able to predict what diseases a person may get in the future using genome sequencing. Recently, a team of scientists in the United Kingdom sequenced the genome of the deadliest form of breast cancer, called triple negative. Interestingly, genome sequencing is now being applied to other fields like food production. A group of Chinese scientists have discovered the genome sequence of sweet orange – a breakthrough that has been called the opening of “black box” of the crop’s life activities. This could help improve a fruit’s traits, including colour, taste, yields and disease resistance.
Knowing your vitamins
The most fundamental part of our existence is eating. But are we eating right? Vitamins are one of the most vital parts of our diet and because they do not occur naturally in our bodies, they have to be supplemented through food. But recent studies indicate that we are not eating right.
The little known ‘Vitamin B12’ has been in the news. Discovered due to its relationship with anaemia, a condition that restricts absorption of B12 into the blood, Vitamin B12 or cobalamin studies have proven that its deficiency can cause acute harm to brain and the nervous system. Its absence also causes fatigue and poor memory.
Let us now talk about Vitamin D, the ‘sunlight’ Vitamin. Studies have shown that Vitamin D is related to heart disease, diabetes and breast cancer. A recent study shows how its lack may also cause multiple sclerosis. Experts say deficiency of the Vitamin in pregnant women can determine the bone health of children. There are other studies that have found that patients with Vitamin D deficiency lived an average of 8.9 days lesser than those who had enough Vitamin D levels.
In another study, a team of experts from New Zealand has found a natural way of boosting Vitamin C in fruits and vegetables. The team found the plant gene that regulates the production of the Vitamin. If commercially successful, it would be possible to develop ascorbate-rich fruit and vegetables that in turn make it easier for consumers to maintain a healthy diet. Imagine getting a daily dose of Vitamin C from just one potato!
Want to be skinny?
Eat GM food
Genetically Modified (GM) food is not a new phenomenon. But GM foods specifically altered to address obesity and other deficiencies? That’s a new one. A team of scientists from the United Kingdom are trying to modify oranges to incorporate the health advantages of another variety called blood oranges into them. Blood oranges apparently have less fat and are more nutritious, but are not so popular as the standard oranges.
Other projects involve incorporating algae genes into rapeseed oil to produce nutritionally vital fish oils, without killing fish. Also grains modified to imbibe more zinc from the environment, to address zinc deficiencies in people are on the anvil. Although still in testing stage, if successful, experts say this process could be a low-cost answer to harmful nutritional deficiencies.
Synthetic biology: a new boon of life?
Man learnt the art of survival by exploiting the riches of Mother Nature. But as the world population touches a new high, nature is losing out on its ability to cope with the ‘hungry humans’. Here is the answer: Synthetic biology. It is the science of creating new living organisms albeit artificial. Scientists hope to make plants that will absorb more photosynthesis or even capture nitrogen from air, so they do not need fertilizers.
If this actually happens, food woes of the world will come to an end. But the words ‘synthetic’ and ‘artificial’ have rung many alarm bells. What are the risks we are taking? Would it be ethical to ‘create’ new organisms? What about the natural order of living things? Is the environment at a potential risk?
Non-GM crop breeding
Salinity affects 20 per cent of the world’s soils and in turn affects food production. But thanks to gene pool sharing of different crop varieties between countries, a team of scientists in Australia has been able to create a new type of wheat that can withstand this problem. Using non-GM breeding techniques, the team introduced a salt-tolerant gene to make it resistant to salinity. Results showed that the new crop exhibited yields of more than 25 per cent, as compared to the earlier crop.
If successfully tested with other varieties of wheat and other crops, sharing of the gene pool could solve several food security issues.
Getting robots to think like humans
Computer scientist Hava Siegelmann of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is building a computational system that learns and evolves, using inputs from the environment in a way very similar to our brains. The ‘Super-Turing’ machine will one day be able to accompany a blind person to a grocery store, or even help around the house with difficult chores. More than being a mechanical help, it will adapt to speech, recognise facial expressions and interact just the way humans interact with other humans. The intelligent machine will be able to ‘learn’ from experience. Every time it receives an input, it will literally become a different machine.
From a smart phone to a smart home
So often we wish we could just press a button and a robot would prepare breakfast for us, or vacuum the house. One day this wish might turn into a reality, thanks to ‘ambient technology’.
Working on the concept of artificial intelligence, future homes will gather information from appliances, computers, smart phones and other devices to meet the needs of its residents. Not surprisingly, there are already appliances like the air conditioner in the market that perceive the state of a home's physical environment and residents via sensors; interpret this information using artificial intelligence, and then automatically adjust heating, cooling, lighting or other resources based on that information.
Not only will life become easier, but our health and energy efficiency will also flourish. Ambient technology can be extended city-wide too. For example, adjusting the timing of traffic signals to improve traffic flow or texting alerts to people, warning them to stay indoors due to poor air quality.
LET US HOPE THESE SMART TECHNIQUES WILL LEAD TO SMART LIFESTYLES. HEALTH – SMART, ENERGY – SMART, ECO - SMART.