Bruce Young: On NC State’s “Stewards of the Future”

Wednesday, April 25, 2012
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Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the “Stewards of the Future” conference on human health and global sustainability hosted by NC State. Over 400 scientists and policy makers, joined to discuss ways to leverage research partnerships in the agricultural and life sciences to meet the urgent needs of feeding the world, protecting our environment, and developing global economy. This was an outstanding program that highlighted the many challenges we will face in the future and the innovative research that is done in North Carolina, as well as, at the NC State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).

The first keynote speaker was Phillip Sharp, Nobel Laureate from MIT, who discovered RNA splicing and the phenomenon of “discontinuous genes”. Dr. Sharp presented a “new biology” for the 21st century that integrates multiple disciplines (mathematics, engineering, computer science, etc.) with biology to develop biologically based solutions to the major challenges. He outlined the 4 challenges we face:

  • Food challenge– how to feed 9 billion people the key will be transgenics;

  • Environmental challenge – we need to protect our natural resources through better engineering.

  • Energy challenge – develop renewable fuels.

  • Health challenge – we need to individualize the health care process.
This “new biology” or integration of sciences was highlighted during the series of presentations by NC State professors on novel research and the innovation fair. Just to give a few highlights of interest. Dr. Mary Ann Lila laboratory team is focused on the characterization of bioactive plant compounds with benefits to human health. I spoke with her about use our probabilistic dietary models to determine the distribution of dose for a population based on current consumption data to see what percentile would achieve the therapeutic level. She had only briefly had looked at dietary consumption data and seemed interested in the “reverse” approach to using the models. Dr. Craig Sullivan focuses on aquaculture of the hybrid striped bass using the latest genomic techniques and cloud computing to selectively breed fish to grow faster. The innovations were fascinating from a biotech company (Entogenetics) using silk + spider DNA to create a super fabric to the use of transgenic insects to prevent the spread of disease. My favorite quote was from the Dr. Alison Motsinger-Reif (statistician/bioinformatics): “Doing statistics after a study is done is like doing an autopsy…. all you can say is how the study died.”

The final keynote speaker Juan Enríquez really made everyone think outside the box and where we are headed as a species in the future. Juan Enríquez is recognized as one of the world's leading authorities on the economic and political impacts of life sciences. He published the article “Transforming Life, Transforming Business: The Life-Science Revolution” which received a McKinsey Prize in 2000 (2nd place). The title of his talk was “Homo Evolutis”, part science fiction, part Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and part reality, Enriquez took the audience on a fascinating journey to becoming a new human species through DNA manipulation, genetic therapy, tissue regeneration, and robotics. He theorizes that we will see a shift in the near future where people will be able to grow new body parts and re-engineer our DNA. We are going to be faced with some difficult questions in the near future. Enriquez has his presentation available as an ebook on Kindle.

Juan Enriquez has given several riveting talks at TED.

It’s a great time to be a scientist.

About Bruce Young:

Bruce Young has over 20 yrs. experience in the field of exposure and risk assessment. He began his career in ecotoxicology studying the effects of chemicals on various aquatic organisms required for EPA registration. Bruce gravitated from in vivo to in silica where he is now involved in probabilistic modeling of human exposure to residues found on food, in water and from residential uses. He has always been a biologist at heart and keeps a culture of hissing cockroaches in his office.

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