Discoveries in biology will have a profound impact on our global economy. Innovations in the life sciences—and BYU's very own life scientists —are being made available for BYU students as they progress in their studies toward future careers.
Since the first mapping of a full genome in 1995, the pace of genetic discovery has accelerated dramatically. "Advances in genetic engineering will not only have dramatic implications for people and society, they will reshape vast sectors of the world economy," said Juan Enriquez and Ray Goldberg1, two Harvard researchers. "The boundaries between many once-distinct businesses, from agribusiness and chemicals to health care and pharmaceuticals to energy and computing, will blur, and out of their convergence will emerge what promises to be the largest industry in the world: the life science industry."
This will be a caption about the kenoa plant / faculty & student on phone book cover;
As a result, both veteran Fortune 500 companies and upstart biotechnical firms are betting their futures on life science. Researchers quote a rapid succession of discoveries that have or will come from genome work:
• Striking genetic modification of seeds
• Newly designed crops with higher nutritional and medicinal values
• Proliferation of plant, animal, and soil-based drugs
• DNA testing to discover as many as 400,000 diseases and defects
• Refocus on medical practice from intervention to prevention
• Genetic breakthroughs that may power automobiles from renewable plant resources
• The reduction of drug development time from decades to months.
Graduates from the BYU College of Biology and Agriculture will be part of this exciting development thanks in part to the vision that Dean R. Kent Crookston has for the college. "There are two components of my vision for life sciences," said Crookston. "The first is the future of life sciences globally, and the second is the future of life sciences at BYU.
A Global Vision
"When I decided to become a biologist," Crookston said, "the general perception of a botanist was someone who collected, pressed, and classified plants into herbarium collections—still important but rather quaint. Business, law, and medicine were professions that caught the public eye. But by 1980 that had begun to change."
In 1990, Crookston was teaching at the University of Minnesota and saw a newspaper with one of those "decade in review" stories. Several Nobel Prize laureates were asked what they would do if they could start their careers over again. "More than 60 percent said they would go into biology," said Crookston. "Biology was unfolding as a career loaded with potential."
By the last decade of the twentieth century, biologists had already applied their knowledge of genetics to identify some amazing compounds in plants and also in soils. "There are probably a million life forms in ordinary soil that haven't been classified," said Crookston. "Many of the new generation antibiotics are coming out of the soil."
Soil-derived insecticides have been genetically introduced into cotton plants. The boll weevil is now controlled without the use of toxic chemicals that also killed beneficial insects and put the health of cotton farmers at risk. The polio vaccine has been genetically placed in bananas; children who eat the modified bananas are effectively immunized. Rice has been modified to contain vitamin A, which can spare hundreds of thousands of tropical children from blindness.
Researchers at the University of Wyoming have transferred a gene from a spider into a goat. Spider silk, in quantity, can be spun from the modified goat milk, making probable the mass production of incredibly strong and flexible fibers with hundreds of potential applications. Tobacco plants are being modified to produce pure human insulin. "The applications are endless; our imagination is probably the limit," said Crookston.
A BYU Vision
"The enormous impact that life sciences opportunities pose for our lives and for our economy also brings a tremendous obligation to prepare our BYU students to become major players in the coming transformation," said Crookston. "We need to prepare men and women of faith to research sensitive, controversial subjects. We want BYU graduates salting corporate boards with the light of the gospel in areas that will have an impact on mankind. The kids that come to BYU are so talented. Our goal is to give them the best undergraduate training available in the life sciences anywhere in the world."
—"One of the most exciting discoveries in recent years is the sequencing of the human genome," said Keith Crandall, coordinator of bioinformatics at BYU. "We have human genome centers around the world, but our ability to collect raw, sequenced data far outstrips our ability to understand it."
Crandall describes bioinformatics as an interdisciplinary program with substantial training in the biological, physical, and mathematics sciences with an emphasis on computer programming coupled with genetics and molecular biology.
"We're at a crossroads," said Crandall, "to develop well-rounded undergraduates in bioinformatics and prepare them to move on to doctorate programs in bioinformatics. Most universities are aligning their graduate programs to compete for students, but few are looking at their undergraduate programs. Ours is probably the fourth most prominent undergraduate program in the country."
Crandall said that both the field and accredited programs are so new, that upon discovering the discipline, students will say, "Where has this been? I've been looking for just such an opportunity." Bioinformatics provides computer programmers a much more compelling opportunity to align their skills to the life-changing sciences. The result?-a degree in computational biology.
Laura Bridgewater (right)
is conducting research on genes that can confer a genetic predisposition to osteoarthritis.
Another professor is peering into the crystal ball of a malady that affects many people as they grow older. Arthritis affects about 37 million people in America, with osteoarthritis afflicting the vast majority.
"Our basic research is helping us understand how cartilage collagen genes function normally," said Laura Bridgewater, assistant professor of molecular biology. "If we know their normal function, then we have a better idea of what goes wrong in osteoarthritis." Bridgewater is working with two mutant versions of genes from mice predisposed to osteoarthritis. If a mouse has two mutant copies of the genes, they will have severe skeletal abnormalities. If they have only one mutant gene, they appear normal but will have a greater propensity to osteoarthritis.
"One person will need knee replacement at age 50 while another person won't have any problems his entire life," said Bridgewater. "If we can fi nd out why, then we're on our way to discovering what to do about it. The more we understand why cartilage holds together and resists 100 pounds with every step, the better our chances are of producing improved biophysical substitutes. A really long range dream is that we can do gene therapy by injecting DNA into a joint to manufacture the proteins needed to improve the structure of the cartilage."
Possible Cancer Cures
- BYU professors are also researching other health issues. A little-known molecule created when soy is digested may provide solutions to baldness, prostate cancer, skin conditions, and even mood disorders, according to a team of researchers that includes BYU scientists. Researchers wanted to understand why prostate size decreases when soy-rich foods are consumed. They assumed that a molecule made by metabolizing soy isoflavins would bind to estrogen and account for the change. But it didn't happen.
Further testing showed that the molecule, equol, binds to a key androgen, the potent male hormone dihydrotestosterone (DHT). DHT is responsible for baldness and may be linked to prostate cancer.
"It's a completely new finding," said Edwin Lephart, a professor of physiology and developmental biology and director of the neuroscience center at BYU. "The molecule equol influences both androgen and estrogen hormone action simply because it doesn't bind the estrogen receptor but has a potent inhibiting effect on the androgen."
The DHT molecule regulates both male and female pattern baldness and affects facial hair growth and skin health. And because the molecules are powerful in the brain, mood and anxiety levels are also likely affected. "Something that inhibits DHT, like equol, could positively impact all of those areas," said Lephart. "We're still in early animal testing, but this particular molecule may be an effective treatment for prostate cancer."
Dedicated to Undergrads
"While BYU faculty have been involved in some exciting research," said Crookston, "they haven't been distracted by the resulting international recognition. They're focused on providing an undergraduate education equal to any other university, and on sending their gifted progeny off to top graduate schools. A sobering onus befalls us in all of this. With such premium students coming to us as freshmen, we need to be sure that we are adding value, and we want to do that better than anyone else."
Crookston supported the wave of change recommended by the faculty four years ago. "We reinvented ourselves," he said. "We knew there were some imbalances in the student/faculty ratio among our departments. We decided to consider realignment, to revisit our majors and our curriculum. It's been traumatic. We're at a very vulnerable stage. Some areas are so unproven we don't even know if we should be going there."
"Of course, not everything we prize is new," said Crookston. "We remain solid in most of our traditional areas such as field-based ecology, food science, clinical lab sciences, biology teacher education, etc. Most of our graduates will not become gene jockeys. Almost half of them will take traditional jobs with their bachelor degrees. We are proud to be part of educating good homemakers, politicians, and all around citizens who understand biology and apply that understanding wherever they can."
"A statement made by John Taylor in 1875 is one of our guides," said Crookston. "He said, 'You will see the day that Zion will be as far ahead of the outside world in everything pertaining to learning of every kind as we are today in regard to religious matters. You mark my words, and write them down, and see if they do not come to pass."'2 We feel an obligation to press on. If we can be unified and have the Spirit bless us, we don't need to worry about worldly acclaim."
"We're finding that many schools and companies want more BYU biology students," said Crookston. "Employers proactively seek our students out. This, of course, is fine with us. We want to be the first place people think of when they want an undergrad welltrained in the life sciences."
1 Harvard Business Review, Juan
Enriquez and Ray Goldberg, Mar-Apr 2000, 96-104
National Science Foundation/Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Federal Funds for Research and Development. Fiscal Years 2000, 2001, and 2002
|Trends in Federal Research for Selected Disciplines
One of the most exciting possibilities in life science is nanocomputing. Instead of using transistors and electrons, the nanocomputer could operate by DNA, the carrier of genetic information in living organisms. While such technology is promising, it may take many years and billions of dollars to develop. Even so, government spending for the life sciences has eclipsed that for other areas, especially in the last ten years.
2 John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 1875 Vol 21, 100 7