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Amazing science

In 2020, the Nobel Prize in chemistry was jointly awarded to two women – Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A Doudna – for their work on CRISPR-Cas9, a method to edit DNA, the blueprint of life itself.

Dr Charpentier and Dr Doudna thus became the sixth and seventh women in history to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry. The discovery was the result of their investigations regarding bacterial defence mechanisms and to use it as a tool for customizing genes in microbes, plants, animals or even humans.

CRISPR-Cas9 represents an amazing discovery that is now rapidly transforming the very face of biotechnology. For a long time, scientists have aspired to tackle genetic diseases by editing defective genes, but the technology has not been available till now. A recent one-week training workshop held at the Jamilur Rahman Centre of Genomics Research in the Panjwani Centre for Molecular Medicine and Drug Research, University of Karachi highlighted the myriad applications of this fast emerging field.

In November 2023, the gene editing technology obtained its first clinical approval for treating sickle cell anemia and beta-thalassemia in the UK, a huge leap forward. These serious blood disorders are caused by a single genetic error which distorts the structure of the blood cells and limits their ability to deliver oxygen. A few weeks later, the Food and Drug Administration in the US also granted approval to this new gene therapy for sickle cell anaemia.

Another exciting, related development in the field has been the combination of artificial intelligence (AI) with CRISPR. While burrowing through mountains of data of genetic material from Arctic shores to tropical forests, AI discovered hundreds of potential CRISPR variants in bacteria that are effective for editing human genomes. CRISPR-like mechanisms have been found to be operative in certain other living organisms including fungi, algae and some animals.

Known as ‘Fanzors’, they are further expanding the horizons of gene therapy. Artificial intelligence (AI) is now playing a pivotal role in healthcare diagnostics, offering improved accuracy and efficiency in disease detection. AI algorithms can analyze medical images, interpret complex data sets, and assist healthcare professionals in making more informed decisions. This not only enhances diagnostic capabilities but also contributes to early detection and intervention, ultimately improving patient outcomes.

Gene editing teams are now also joining forces with immunologists to develop new cancer treatments. There is huge excitement in scientific circles as many clinical trials are now underway and the cure for many hitherto incurable diseases may now be in sight.

Biotechnology is also being used in search of that elixir of everlasting youth – to slow down or even reverse the process of ageing. Two scientists at Eotvos Lorand University – Dr Adam Sturm and Dr Tibor Vellai – have made a new breakthrough in figuring out why we age. They have found that certain moving parts – transposable elements (TEs) – in our DNA are a major factor in the ageing process. Learning from how the ‘immortal jellyfish’ controls the movements of these TEs, they have managed to extend the average lifespan of certain worms, opening a new way to extend human life too.

One of the most prominent applications of biotechnology in agriculture is the genetic modification of crops. Genetic engineering techniques allow scientists to introduce specific genes into crop plants, imparting desirable traits such as resistance to pests, tolerance to harsh environmental conditions, and increased nutritional content. Genetically modified (GM) crops expressing insecticidal proteins have been developed to reduce the reliance on chemical pesticides.

Turning to the energy sector, an important area of disruptive innovations is that of new battery technologies. As the world grapples with the need for sustainable and eco-friendly transportation solutions, the development of advanced battery technologies is emerging as a key driver of change. Batteries play a pivotal role in powering electric vehicles (EVs), and the ongoing research and innovation in this field is unlocking new possibilities for the future of transportation.

While lithium-ion batteries have dominated the electric vehicle market, sodium-ion batteries are emerging as a potential alternative. Sodium is a more abundant and cost-effective element than lithium, and the development of sodium-ion batteries could contribute to making electric vehicles more affordable.

But the most promising recent development in this field is that of solid-state batteries. One of the primary advantages of solid-state batteries is their improved safety profile. The absence of a liquid electrolyte reduces the risk of leakage, fire, and explosions associated with traditional lithium-ion batteries.

Solid-state batteries exhibit higher energy density, enabling them to store more energy in a smaller space. Additionally, these batteries allow faster charging rates, addressing one of the significant concerns of electric vehicle owners – the time required for recharging. Solid-state batteries also tend to have a longer lifespan compared to traditional lithium-ion batteries.

But perhaps the most exciting developments in the last year or so have been the advances in technologies to produce clean energy by nuclear fusion, the process by which our sun and other stars produce energy. Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in the US have succeeded in ‘fusion ignition’, producing a net energy gain from a fusion reaction for the first time.

The lab used the National Ignition Facility (NIF) to fire 192 laser beams at a frozen pellet of isotopes held within a capsule suspended in a cylinder. The resulting reaction resulted in a record energy increase of 89 per cent. This heralds a new era in the field of clean energy production and the cities of tomorrow may well be powered by ‘star engines’ using such fusion technologies.

Pakistan needs to invest in education and research in these fast-evolving fields as they promise to change the face of life on our planet. This will involve investments in establishment of entrepreneurial universities with primary focus on engineering skills.

One successful example of such an entrepreneurial university is the Pak-Austria Fachhochschule which also harbours a full-fledged engineering university and a technology park for commercial product development within it. This unique institution has been established in Haripur Hazara, under my supervision. It has nine foreign engineering universities from Austria, Germany and China as partners, each supporting teaching and research in assigned departments. I am also supervising the development of another similar university in Sambrial, Sialkot.

India has already established 23 Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) that are having a major transformative impact on its economy. Other provinces in Pakistan, particularly Sindh and Balochistan, must also come forth to set up such hybrid entrepreneurial engineering universities so that Pakistan can keep up in the race for technological superiority in agriculture, industry and defence.

Atta-ur-Rahman, "Amazing science," The News. 2024-01-03.
Keywords: Science & Technology , Electric vehicles , Artificial intelligence , Biotechnology , Algorithms , Jamilur Rahman , Pakistan , IIT , NIF