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Biotech and Nanotech

by Rudy M. Baum
April 12, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 15

Live human epithelial cells labeled with quantum dots.
Live human epithelial cells labeled with quantum dots.

Biotechnology and nanotechnology are shorthand designations for suites of tools humans use to manipulate nature to suit their purposes. Biotechnology is well established; nanotechnology today is more promise than substance.

Biotechnology applied to producing pharmaceuticals is a thriving and noncontroversial industry. The 27 biopharmaceutical firms that C&EN tracks had sales of $28.6 billion and earnings of $4.9 billion in 2003 (C&EN, March 15, page 15). Biotechnology applied to agriculture is also a thriving industry in the U.S.--most of the soybeans and more than half of the corn grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered--but ag biotech is hardly progressing without controversy.

Europeans have led the mindless charge against genetically modified foods, or "GM foods" as they are often called. Despite ample evidence from the U.S. that ag biotech crops pose no health threat to humans or animals, many in Europe do not even want oil pressed from a GM crop imported into the EU. There are other issues involved in the GM food debate, but I suspect that protecting Europe's highly subsidized and coddled farmers has as much to do with opposition to GM foods as concerns over safety.

Europeans, of course, are free to do what they want to do--they're wealthy and are able to produce or buy all the non-GM food they need. An article in the New York Times two weeks ago, however, brings into sharp focus collateral damage the European stance is causing. The Times reported on March 30 that "a United Nations effort to feed nearly two million hungry Angolans ... is imperiled because Angola's government plans to outlaw imports of genetically modified cereals."

The Times goes on to say, "Most food assistance from the United States, which at last count provided more than three-quarters of United Nations aid to Angola, consists of genetically modified corn and other crops that apparently would be barred under the new rules."

The report also notes that four other African nations--Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique--are refusing donations of GM foods "despite widespread malnutrition and even starvation among their citizens."

This is nuts. Previous editors of C&EN and I have written in these pages about the ag biotech industry's past arrogance and the self-inflicted wounds that arrogance has caused. But no one has ever shown that the products of ag biotech are anything less than completely safe to consume. It is unconscionable for governments to reject food aid on the basis of endless unproven assertions about the safety of GM foods.

Nanotechnology does not yet form the basis of a major industry, but many observers are sure it's the next big thing. This issue of C&EN certainly reflects that. The cover story by contributing editor Susan J. Ainsworth is an in-depth examination of the aggressive efforts of many companies to lock up intellectual property (IP) in the nanotech arena. Because the field is young and has such potential, Ainsworth writes, nanotechnology IP is particularly valuable right now, and companies are racing to protect their own IP or license or buy it from universities, companies, or other groups.

Three other stories in the issue also touch on nanotech topics, including an employment feature on what it takes to work in nanotechnology. And this week, C&EN Online launches its new "NanoFocus" page, bringing together breaking news in the field with the rich archive of nanotech stories C&EN has published (

As with biotechnology, there are safety and ethical issues associated with nanotechnology that need careful research and evaluation. Such issues, however, should not be allowed to blossom into an open-ended assault on this promising new set of tools.

Thanks for reading.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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