This last century has seen an escalation in advancement of technology. In about one hundred years, man has gone from the horse and buggy to super sonic flight. These advancements have also been implanted in the health industry as seen in the almost doubling of the life expectancy of man.It also appears as though this escalation will only continue. One field where these advancements are moving at a very high speed is the field of genetics and biotechnology. The last ten years have seen some of the greatest landmarks in genetic genealogy research. The pattern in this field indicates that the discoveries and applications of those discoveries will continue to grow at an exponential rate.

With the increase in genetic knowledge there has also been an increase in the variety and ease of genetic testing available. Genetic testing refers to any sort of test which involves the study of the genome. When genetics was in its infancy, tests were expensive and took a long period of time to perform. Recent advances have significantly decreased the costs and time needed to perform genetic testing. This decrease in cost and time has made genetic testing available to more of the general public.

Genetic testing has also been used for determining family relationships. The simplest relationship to determine with a genetic test is a paternal or a maternal relationship. Today, genetic testing can also be used to determine other, more distant relationships. Genetic testing is available for full siblings, half siblings, grandparents and cousins. This allows family relationships to be determined even if one or more of the family members is deceased. As research continues, the ability to dive deeper into your family tree is becoming possible. With the use of Y-chromosome and mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) testing more can be learned. The use of these genetic tests has allowed genealogists to verify their family trees and in some cases discover new branches that were not previously known. Genetic testing is even being used to understand the roots of family trees. This includes the use of genetic tests to look for Native American ancestry, and ancestry from different parts of Europe and Asia.

As knowledge and research in the area of genetics and biotechnology continue to advance, genetic testing will become even more accessible. This increase in use of genetic tests will give people more access to information. This information can be used to help solve crimes, increase the quality of health care, and provide information into your personal or family history.

For the modest fee of only $50,000, grieving cat owners used to be able to have little Fluffy recreated. Alas, they will no longer have that option, at least for the time being.

The company that offered the cloning service, Genetic Savings and Clone, was launched in 2000 by billionaire and University of Phoenix founder John Sperling. Sperling had hoped to have his hunting dog Missy cloned, but scientists were never able to accomplish that feat. Nonetheless, Sperling decided to go into the business of trying to help others recreate their dearly departed pets.

Unfortunately, even for the most devoted of pet owners, there’s a limit to how much they’ll pay to have their dearly departed feline recreated. Genetic Savings and Clone’s hefty $50,000 price tag was just too much to generate much interest in their services. The company recently reduced the price to $32,000, but still there were no takers. The company sent letters to its customers last month letting them know that they will have to close at the end of the year. The letters said that Genetic Savings and Clone has been "unable to develop the technology to the point that cloning pets is commercially viable."

The company’s telephone answering system now contains a message saying that it is no longer taking orders, and it refers customers interested in having their pets’ genetic material frozen to ViaGen, Inc., a biotechnology company based in Austin, Texas.

The first cat that was cloned for commercial purposes was Little Nicky, who was requested by a woman in Texas who was saddened by the loss of her cat Nicky, who had died the previous year at age 17. Little Nicky was created from the original Nicky’s DNA, and cost the woman $50,000.

Since the company began, it was able to successfully clone five cats, but only two of them were sold to paying customers. Reproductive cycles of pets are too unpredictable for consistent and inexpensive cloning, according to Bonnie Beaver, past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

The ethical and scientific debate over cloning technology has become more and more heated since the sale of Little Nicky, with animal rights activists complaining that cloning cats isn’t necessary because there are thousands of stray cats euthanized each year because they don’t have homes. Those groups were thrilled to hear about Genetic Savings and Clones having to close its doors. Activists say that because cloning techniques are still primitive, the procedures fail more often than they succeed. "For every successful clone, dozens fail and die prematurely, have physical deformities, and face chronic pain and suffering," said Wayne Pacelle, head of the Humane Society of the United States.

Animal rights activists believe that cloning is at odds with basic animal welfare considerations. "It's no surprise the demand for cloned pets is basically nonexistent, and we're very pleased that Genetics Savings & Clone's attempt to run a cloning pet store was a spectacular flop," said Pacelle. "It's not just a bad business venture, but also an operation grounded on the misuse of animals."

Cuba has approved what is believed to be the world's first registered lung cancer vaccine and is offering it to Cuban and foreign patients in its hospitals.

The therapeutic vaccine CimaVax EGF extends life with few side effects, and is another step in Cuba's expertise in biotechnology. It was unveiled on Monday at Havana's center of molecular immunology.

It has been shown to boost survival rates by an average of four to five months, and in some cases much longer. It does not prevent lung cancer. Unlike chemotherapy, CimaVax EGF is said to have few side effects because it is a modified protein which attacks only cancer cells.

"It's the first such vaccine registered in the world," said Gisela González, who headed the project begun in 1992. The drug is in various clinical trials, some in Canada and Britain, and is expected to be approved next in Peru.

Several companies had been licensed to market the vaccine, but it will be made in Cuba, said González. It has been approved for trial in the United States but use there is at least two years away, she added.

The vaccine triggers an immune response which, in addition to extending life, can ease symptoms such as difficulty breathing and lack of appetite. The idea was to "maintain or consolidate" the effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Tania Crombet, the centre's director of clinical investigations, said foreigners were welcome for treatment, though its cost had not yet been set. "It's possible to provide this vaccine to any patient. Because it's available in Cuba, it's approved by the Cuban drug agency, so we can receive patients from outside."

As well as helping the health services of other countries with its abundance of doctors, Cuba has used its clinics to draw thousands of overseas patients each year. Its scientists are respected by foreign peers as producing good results on tiny budgets. Fidel Castro championed biotechnology in the 1980s; by the 1990s Cuba had produced and marketed vaccines for meningitis B and hepatitis B.

Scientists were yesterday embroiled in an international row over genetically modified cotton after a study in China suggested for the first time that the crop was permanently damaging the environment and that insects were building up resistance to it.

The study by the Nanjing institute of environmental sciences, part of the Chinese government's environmental protection administration, draws together laboratory and field work undertaken by four scientific institutions in China over several years.

It suggests that GM cotton, which incorporates a gene isolated from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), harms the natural parasitic enemies of the cotton bollworm, the pest that it is designed to control. It also indicates that populations of pests other than cotton bollworm had increased in Bt cotton fields and some had replaced it as primary pests.

However, the leading GM company Monsanto, which controls more than 80% of the Bt cotton grown worldwide, dismissed the research. The industry has always cited GM cotton as its biggest success, because it can increase yields by up to 60% and reduce the need for pesticides by 80%.

But worryingly for the industry, the scientists also found that the resistance of Bt cotton to bollworm decreased significantly over time. GM cotton, they said, will require increasing amounts of traditional chemicals to control pests within a few years.

The report, which was published by Greenpeace International, says bollworm control is no longer complete by the third and fourth generations of the pest, and control falls to 30% after 17 generations. The scientists concluded that Bt cotton would probably lose all its resistance to bollworm after being planted continuously for 8-10 years.

Zhu Xinquan, the chairman of the Chinese society of agro-biotechnology, said new GM organisms and products would benefit agriculture and other industries, but people should always beware of the long-term and underlying impacts on the environment.

China is the largest grower of GM cotton after the US, with about 1.5m hectares (3.7m acres) under cultivation, the great majority by small farmers. An estimated two thirds of the plantings are Monsanto cotton, the rest domestically developed strains. The Chinese government has heavily backed GM crop research and plans to quadruple budgets within three years.

Yesterday the report was dismissed by both US and other Chinese scientists. Monsanto said: "It lies outside the broad scientific view of Bt cotton as well as the practical experience by millions of farmers in eight countries where Bt cotton is growing. The report serves as another example of baseless claims made by anti-GM activists like Greenpeace."

The Chinese academy of sciences is understood to be preparing a paper for China's leadership that refutes the allegations in the Nanjing study, and chastises the state environment protection agency for working with Greenpeace. Its findings were also disputed by Professor Guo Sandui, the inventor of Chinese Bt cotton. "Greenpeace is absolutely ignorant about genetically modified cotton and doesn't know how to protect the environment," he said.

However, in India, the forum for biotechnology and food security, a collective of agricultural scientists, farmers and others, used the report to urge an inquiry into the role of Indian government's department of biotechnology in supporting applications by Monsanto to grow GM cotton.

The Indian government controversially authorised commercial plantings of GM cotton in April, following disputed environmental testing.

While we in the west continue in our narcissistic obsession with our own genome and the futuristic possibilities of human cloning, scientists in the developing world are more interested in the crops that put food in hungry mouths. This month a group of them laid bare the complete genome sequence of rice in what may prove to be a turning point for science in the developing world.

Rice is the staple crop for 3 billion people, mostly in Asia, so it was no surprise when Japan fired the starting gun for the genome race in 1991. But big markets generate big profits, so the major agrochemical corporations were soon among the runners. In the end, the Swiss-based multinational biotechnology giant, Syngenta, was a fairly predictable winner. But before environmentalists or globalisation demonstrators protest at yet more science in the pockets of big business, they should note that the other winner was the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI).

Only four years ago, the BGI was an empty brick building. But through the dynamism of its director, geneticist Yang Huanming, and with seed money from the state, Yang's hometown municipal government, and even loans from employees, family and friends, it became a world-class research institute. Soon, several hundred employees were working two 12-hour shifts to keep the sequencing machines running 24 hours a day. With little more than ping-pong to distract them from decoding the rice genome, science in the developing world took on multinational biotechnology, and won - or at least drew.

But the rice genome is far more than a David versus Goliath story. More than a billion people live on less than $1 a day and that usually buys rice. The crop is prone to many diseases and much of it ends up in the belly of an insect. An outbreak of brown plant-hoppers disease cost Java 70% of its rice crop in the 1970s. Climate change is a major worry in marginal lands. Droughts brought by the 1997-98 El Nino inflicted losses across Asia.

Genetic engineering to generate varieties resistant to disease, pests, drought or salinity could revolutionise third world farming. The release of the sequence will help researchers eager to improve crop yields.

Many aid organisations - often influenced by western green campaigns - say GM technology does little to address the real causes of world poverty and hunger. They said the same decades ago when famine was predicted to follow population explosion. The population explosion materialised but the famine didn't. While others argued for social reform, pioneering plant breeders, such as Norman Borlaug, developed high-yielding varieties of maize, wheat and rice. Global harvests soared and have continued to rise at a rate of 2% per year. The green revolution saved millions from starvation, but is grinding to a halt as plant breeders run out of natural genetic variation. To keep pace with population growth, breeders need to tinker with genes. That is why China spent $100m on GM technology in 1999.

Biotechnology is more appropriate for the developing world than most high technologies. At the click of a mouse, a researcher in Addis Ababa or Kuala Lumpur can download the fruits of billion-dollar research projects. And although western manufacturers charge prohibitive prices for their gene-cloning reagents, local manufacturers can often produce the same products cheaply and efficiently. Yang Huanming found a local glass-maker who could make a piece of sequencing kit for a fraction of the price of the import. Unable to acquire US-made supercomputers, BGI scien tists bought locally and developed their own software.

China's ratio of six researchers or engineers for every 10,000 population may seem puny against the 70 or so in the United States, but it is more than 10 times the typical ratio for the poorest countries in Africa or Asia. But China isn't alone in its interest in biotechnology. A coalition of laboratories from Sao Paolo in Brazil has completed the DNA sequence of a bacterium that causes disease in citrus fruits. Researchers from Brazil, India and Mexico are involved in a global consortium to sequence the banana genome. The UN-commissioned human development report 2001 concluded "many developing countries might reap great benefits from genetically modified food crops and other organisms".

GM technology can benefit the poor, but the western anti-technology lobby is busy trying to prevent its use. Publication of the rice gene genome shows how science, in the hands of developing world scientists, can be a liberating influence formankind. It's about time western lobbyists let them get on with it.


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