For me one of the odder, and most welcome features of this year’s Biotechnology Industry Organization convention is the complete lack of anti-biotech activist protests. It’s been a while since I reported from BIO’s annual convention. Back in 2000 at BIO’s convention in Boston, activists set up a counter-conference called, Biodevastation to protest the entire industry. Some 2,500 protesters marched against BIO dressed as giant tomatoes and monarch butterflies. The next year in San Diego, I noted in my first dispatch:
Cops. Lots of cops. That’s the first impression when registering for the annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) at the harborside San Diego Convention Center. The cops are here to protect the convention from disruption threatened by anti-biotech activists, who are holding a counter demonstration that they dubbed "Beyond Biodevastation."
This year – nothing. Surely that must be a sign of progress.
On Wednesday, I stopped by the breakout session on animal biotechnology. Global food prices have been volatile during over the past few years, soaring to all time highs earlier this year. Keeping in mind that the presenters are practicing biotechnologists, Mark Readnour, the senior director for animal health at Elanco, argued that 70 percent of the future increase in agricultural productivity as world population peaks at 9 billion later this century is expected to be coming from biotechnology. University of Illinois-Urbana agriculture professor Zhiying Zhang pointed out that as people’s per capita income rises, the more they demand meat. Of course, it tastes good, but meat also significantly boosts nutrition. Zhang cited research showing clearly that diets that include meat help people correct deficiencies [PDF] in micronutrients such as iron, zinc, vitamins A and B-12, riboflavin and calcium. The result is that meat consumption improves cognitive function and enhances overall health. So what can biotechnology do to enhance the production of meat?
Mark Walton, former president of the animal cloning company Viagen, cited three examples how biotechnology could enhance farm animal production. First, there is the Enviropig, engineered by researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada. Enviropigs have an added gene which enables them to efficiently digest phosphorous in plants. This means that there is less phosphorous in the pigs manure which helps prevent run-off into streams and lakes where it can fertilize undesirable algal growth. While the pigs await regulatory action in the U.S., Canada has gone ahead an approved them.
Walton’s next example is the AquaBounty salmon which are genetically enhanced to grow faster and use less feed. Shamefully, two members of Congress representing capture fishers inserted legislation into the agricultural appropriations bill that forbids the Food and Drug Administration to spend money on approving this enhanced fish. Walton observed that wild capture Alaska salmon sells for $30 per pound, whereas AquaBounty’s cultured salmon are expected to sell for $8 per pound.
Walton’s third example was how new genetic techniques could be used to enhance smallholder farming in developing countries. In this case, he noted that a breed of sheep carries a gene called Fec-B which boosts the average number of lambs that a ewe will bear. In recent years, animal breeders in India have been cross breeding this variety with other breeds and have managed to increase lamb production by 30 to 50 percent [PDF] for smallholder Indian farmers. It took many years to achieve this result. However, scientists can shorten the years of crossbreeding by using a relatively new and very precise technique called gene editing to endow sheep breeds with the Fec-B gene.
I ended my time at the BIO convention with a visit to a panel discussion on biosurveillance. The most interesting talk was given by Evan Skowronski, the senior scientist at the Tahoe Research Institute. The Tahoe Research Initiative works with developing countries to build the scientific capability to detect diseases detrimental to public health. Skowronski explained the difficulty of practicing high level science in places without reliable electricity or even access to reagents or replacement parts for their equipment.
Skowronski also pointed out that researchers are woefully ignorant of the global biodiversity of microbes that might threaten us. For example, the library of dengue fever virus genomic sequences does not contain any from the Philippines where there are 90,000 cases each year. This means that some the simpler lab tests for dengue based on gene sequences from other regions might miss a variety from the Philippines that has suddenly appeared somewhere else. Skowronski agreed with me when I suggested that a good bit of this biodiversity problem is temporary since cheap full genome sequencing of organisms will be available later in this decade. As biotechnology advances, I predict that there will be no more pandemics since it will be possible to identify new diseases and devise therapeutic responses to them quickly.
Up next: Off to cover the Heartland Institute’s Sixth International Conference on Climate Change tomorrow and Friday.