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Author: George Bugliarello
The Biotechnology Revolution
The rapid growth of bioengineering since the first academic programs were initiated in the early 1960s is a measure of its importance both to the life sciences and medicine and to engineering. The achievements of bioengineering have been dramatic, not only new instrumentation, diagnostic and therapeutic devices, medical imaging, biotechnology, and increasingly sophisticated prostheses, but also a deeper understanding of living systems, from physiology to genetics. Studies of the highly complex and efficient processes developed by biological organisms over four billion years are also leading to opportunities for new engineering designs.
At the NAE National Meeting at the Beckman Center last February, NAE held a symposium on biotechnology organized by NAE member Satya Atluri, Samueli/Von Karman Chair in Aerospace Engineering and director of the Center for Aerospace Research and Education at the University of California, Irvine.
In the words of Dr. Atluri in his opening remarks, “Mechanics and chemistry are fundamentally linked together in the science and engineering of biological systems. The aims of this symposium were to help establish a better understanding of mechanochemical coupling in living cells, to facilitate studies of the mechanics of biomolecules, including proteins and nucleic acids, and to provide a knowledge base for the engineering of biosystems, such as hybrid bio/abio nano- and micro-mechanical systems.” Dr. Atluri stressed the engineering challenges in addressing the multi-time, multi-length scales of phenomena in biological systems. Biomechanics pioneer Yuan-Cheng Fung (NAE) described the vistas opened by advanced concepts in the engineering discipline of continuum mechanics, which can lead to a better understanding of biosystems from the molecular to the macroscopic scale.
Three of the papers presented in this issue are based on presentations given at the symposium. Donald Ingber addresses the mechanochemical basis of cell and tissue generation. He explains how the integration of the physical structure of a cell—its hardware—and the cellular information-processing network—its software—enables the cell to respond to its environment. Lester Martinez-Lopez discusses biotechnology as an enabler for the Soldier System of Systems, integrated technologies that can protect soldiers through improved vaccine design and construction, drugs to protect against malaria, biosensors that can identify impending degradation in physical and cognitive performance, sensors to detect and diagnose exposure to biological hazards, and inoculations against toxic agents. John Parmentola explains how paradigms based on biotechnology contribute to the Army’s process of transformation by making possible, for example, dramatic reductions in the size and weight of equipment while increasing the lethality of weapons and improving soldiers’ survivability.
To broaden the picture of the role of bioengineering, we have included two papers that were not presented at the symposium: one on impact biomechanics, that is, the science of preventing and controlling injuries from impacts (Albert I. King, NAE) and the other on how bioprocess engineering translates molecular-scale bioprocesses into production-scale quantities of bioproducts and bioenergy (Michael Ladish, NAE).
As engineering becomes more intimately involved with living systems, the combinations of machines and biological organisms will offer an alternative to a purely robotics-influenced future. Biotechnology and bioengineering are ushering in a technological revolution, opening a myriad of possibilities in areas such as manufacturing, computating, sensing, tissue engineering, and motion control, just to mention a few.