Advances in molecular and cellular biology lead the list of changes in the biological sciences if for no other reason than that they have opened up new fields. But how the new understanding of molecular and cellular structures and events is used in health care and agriculture, for example, depends upon other advances as well. In health care, changes are afoot in diagnostics, drug design, tissue and organ growth, and artificial organs, particularly those known as hybrid organs. In agriculture, advances in the understanding of nutrition and pest control, as well as increasing concern about the environment, guide strategies for modifying organisms to increase the value of foods and to decrease the environmental insult that accompanies their growth.
The field of biology is progressing at a rapid rate, because the scientific opportunities are many, advances in materials and computer and information science and technologies based on them have enabled exploitation of new opportunities in biological research, and public and private funding has increased at a rapid rate. The following sections discuss some of the important areas of advance in biology, focusing especially on those that are enabled by or interact with contributions from nonbiology fields, or that are methodologies enabling a broad range of biological research, or both. These include macromolecule microarrays (or gene chips), synthetic tissues and hybrid organs, and microsensors. The impact of genomics on the genetic modification of plants and animals is also discussed.
Sequencing of the human genome has been nearly completed, setting the stage for the next set of advances: understanding the role of genes in health and disease and using that knowledge to improve screening, diagnosis, and treatment of disease. Since the fundamental structure of DNA has been known for some time, as have been methods for identifying genes and their chromosomal location, the breakthroughs that allowed, in the brief span of a few years, the sequencing of the human genome and the genomes of other plant and animal species have been largely in the development of experimental and computational methods for extremely rapid data generation and analysis, as well as in the management of enormous banks of data. DNA sequencing rates doubled every 29 months in the mid-1980s, and then every 13 months by 2000.
Sequence data will, however, be only a part of the accelerated flow of information during the next decade, and perhaps not the main part. The new techniques for rapid data generation, storage, and analysis of DNA, proteins, and other molecules and cells are providing the basis for various commercial applications. Entire industries have emerged, perhaps the most notable being the biochip industry, whose diverse technological infrastructure encompasses imaging, materials, and a range of information and computational technologies. This section