THE SIGNIFICANCE OF MAJOR DISCOVERIES IN MODERN BIOLOGY
Biology appears to have undergone a series of evolution since its inception and, it has matured into modern biology, which is characterized with an unprecedented sophistication owing to the numerous scientific discoveries that have occurred in the past 200 years. This remarkable growth of the discipline of biology has led to the emergence of new disciplines and, discoveries in DNA, evolution, cell biology and biotechnology are believed to be the principal drivers of scientific progress, especially with regard to biological systems. However, it is worth noting that the pace of scientific discoveries increased significantly from the mid 20th Century and, it has advanced extensively leading to an appreciable breakthrough in agricultural production, industrial biochemistry, health and medicine. It is also worth noting that some of the discoveries, which have occurred since 1950s formed suitable foundations for advanced discoveries such as the genetic engineering, vaccine development and environmental control. Most of the most remarkable discoveries, which have contributed significantly to the development of modern biology, are based on cell biology (Simon et.al. 2009). For instance, in 1946, genetic recombination technique was demonstrated after McLeod, Avery and McCarty discovered that hereditary effects in organisms were controlled by the DNA, in 1944. Later, in 1953, Watson and Crick designed the helical structure of the DNA followed by the discovery of plasmids by Lederberg, in 1958. These discoveries have led to significant developments in the field of biology, especially with regard to genetic engineering; a discipline which appears to have gained an unprecedented popularity in the modern world (Smith Life Science, n.d.). It is believed that modern biology encompasses immense social impact on the modern life because; scientific discoveries cause significant changes on human life. Watson (2011) remarks, “As our understanding of living processes, such as inheritance, grows, so do the possibilities of applying these results for good and evil, such as the treatment of disease, the control of ageing, behavior and genetic engineering” (p. 1). Therefore, this essay will provide an overview on the most important discoveries, which have occurred in the past 50 years and describe their significance to society, health and the culture of modern life.
Concisely, discoveries in biology seemed to attract scholars from different disciplines because; they were appealing and highly promising. As a result, biology did not only prove to be significant to biologists but, also to philosophers and psychologists. For instance, discoveries in cell biology led to the emergence of biopsychology, which has seemingly become a reliable tool in studying human behavior. However, it is worth noting that a number of discoveries, in 1960s led to the emergence of two distinct avenues of biology. In 1961, Ernst Mayr suggested that biology consisted of two sciences; one which answers questions of function and the other sought for historical explanations. As a result, he revealed that the biology, which appeared to be based on proximate causes, was characterized with numerous discoveries and, this developed into the modern biology with biochemistry, molecular biology and physiology as the principal disciplines (Smocovitis, 2013).
Some of the most important discoveries, which have occurred in the past 50 years, are bacterial insulin synthesis, gene therapy, stem cell technology, somatic cell nuclear transfer, transgenic organisms and organ transplant technology.
Bacterial insulin synthesis is one of the most remarkable discoveries, which appear to have led to the advancement of modern biology, especially in health and medicine, leading a significant impact on human life. Human insulin was first discovered by Banting and Best, in 1921 but, its application in treatment of diabetes began later in the mid 1950s. Ideally, insulin was derived from the pancreatic glands of abattoir animals such as the porcine and bovine species and, it was used for regulating blood sugar levels among diabetic patients, especially those suffering from Type 1 diabetes because; their pancreatic cells are unable to secrete adequate insulin owing to autoimmune destruction of the islets of Langerhans beta-cells. Bovine insulin was believed to have numerous impurities, which could cause harm to patients in the long run. As result, researchers were prompted to seek for a suitable technique of producing insulin in large scale using bacterial and, this was enhanced by the advances in DNA recombination technique. In 1975, Dr Teusche and his colleagues synthesized human insulin from E. coli bacteria, and it was approved for clinical uses by the American Federal Drug Administration, in 1982. This marked the end of pharmaceutical reliance on animal insulin, which had been in pharmaceutical use for 50 years since its discovery (Global Diabetes Community, 2013).
In bacterial synthesis of insulin, an insert containing human insulin genes is inserted into E. coli through a process referred to as transformation using a plasmid vector. The transformed E. coli bacteria are incubated to express insulin genes, which are used for the transcription and translation of RNA into amino acids for the insulin molecule. Thereafter, the insulin producing transformants are cultured to produce insulin in large scale under artificial conditions, and then the insulin is purified and packaged as Humulin ® for pharmaceutical use in treatment of diabetes.
In regard to the significance of bacterial insulin synthesis technology, Humulin has proved to be highly suitable for the treatment and management of diabetes since its discovery and approval, in 1980s. Currently, its pharmaceutical use in medicine has gained immense popularity because of its reliability as a medical remedy. This technology has enabled medical experts to confront the enormous threats of diabetes. The global society is facing enormous threats from diabetes after it was ranked among the five leading causes of mortality, globally. Diabetes seems to have increased significantly in the past two decades, owing to the transient change of the culture of modern life characterized by a sedentary lifestyle and change in dietary regimes. Therefore, this discovery has become highly significant and, it holds the potential to counter the adverse effects of diabetes among the global population.
The second significant discovery in biology, whose impacts are life-changing, is the gene therapy technology. Gene therapy is one of the most recent discoveries in the field of medicine, and it involves the application of genetic engineering techniques. Currently, scientists are able to correct genetic disorders in humans through the use of gene therapy, whereby faulty or deficient genes are replaced with functional genes (Castilho, 2008). It is worth noting that genetic disorders such as sickle-cell anemia, hemophilia and leukemia did not have any reliable remedies in the 1950s before some new discoveries such as the amniocentesis of the fetus and the vector gene transfer were realized. However, advances in scientific research, especially in genetic engineering have led to the development of reliable therapeutic approaches, which address an array of genetic disorders. For instance, sickle-cell anemia disorder, which is caused by amino acid mismatch at the sixth position of the hemoglobin chain, can be corrected through gene therapy techniques. Ideally, amniocentesis is performed on the fetus during pregnancy to screen for genetic disorders. In the case of sickle-cell anemia, the defective genes are replaced with effective genes responsible for the synthesis of normal hemoglobin molecules through gene replacement, especially during the early stages of fetal development (Castilho, 2008).
Currently, an array of inborn genetic errors has been corrected leading to a significant reduction of genetic disorders, although some genetic disorders have not yet been solved. Therefore, gene therapy has become a powerful therapeutic tool in the field of medicine. Moreover, this discovery has led to a significant social impact in the society because; the correction of genetic defects among individuals has prolonged the life-span of the concerned populations. Ordinarily, genetic defects are known to reduce the life span of individuals according to evolutionary and ecological biology but, gene therapy discovery has solved the underlying biological consequences associated with genetic disorders.
The third important discovery in the field of biology is the Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT), which has enabled families to maintain their genealogies through genetic inheritance. In SCNT, stem cells are collected from the donor for the formation of an offspring. In most cases, SCNT technology is used when terminally-ill individuals wish to have their generations continued after their death. The replica is developed under artificial conditions in incubators, or they are implanted into the womb of a surrogate mother who carries the pregnancy to its maturity in the normal way. However, it is worth noting that the offsprings possess the genotype of the donor; thus, sameness is maintained through this technique, unlike in ordinary fertilization in which genetic changes occur to produce a recombinant offspring. Therefore, SCNT appears to be a reliable approach to replicate genes of terminally-ill individuals by relatives for the continuity of genetic characteristics along the biological tree.
From a medical perspective, somatic cell nuclear transfer discovery has enabled medical experts to approach terminal illnesses with confidence because; there is an alternative to the failure of medical care. On the other hand, patients’ relatives who wish to have their members’ characteristics to be replicated through the production of a replica have something to smile off owing to the success of the somatic cell nuclear transfer.
However, it is worth noting that somatic cell nuclear transfer is one of the human cloning techniques, which seems to encompass a number of ethical issues, despite the outstanding medical benefits. Human cloning has emerged as a controversial ethical issue because of several aspects. One of the most significant aspects, which might have influenced the understanding of scientists over the issue of human cloning, could be its uncertain definition. Currently, cloning in human beings has never been defined precisely. There is no clear distinction between the use of cloning in humans to produce a new off-spring for purposes of procreation or use as a biomedical tool in medicine. In addition, it has been evidenced in the initial research studies that cloning carries fatal implications especially with regard to health risks. McGee remarks, “Human cloning [is] the most controversial debate of the decade” (p. 1).
It appears that the wave of criticism is seemingly subsiding after several medical approaches have been designed to enhance public understanding on human cloning techniques. This is evidenced by the increasing number of test tube babies. In the test tube baby technology, the reproductive gametes are fused outside the mother’s reproductive system under invitro conditions. Currently, there are over 1 million test tube babies who have been produced through this technology since its discovery by Robert Edwards, in 1977. eScience (2009) reports, “Thirty years ago last summer, the world's first "test-tube" baby was born, and since then more than 1 million infants have been successfully conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF)”