The 21st Century Student

Engineering the Biochip
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Pharmaceuticals can often be made as different isomers, compounds with the same chemical composition but different structures (a "right-handed" versus a "left-handed" structure for example). Bioprocesses are much more effective at producing isomerically pure compounds—all right-handed, or all left-handed, for instance. This can provide a crucial margin of drug safety. Historically, the classic case is thalidomide, where an original mix of isomers proved to have tragic consequences for children whose mothers took it while pregnant. Later, isomerically pure thalidomide proved to be a valuable weapon against such diseases as leprosy. In the future, a vastly expanded variety of isomerically pure tailored pharmaceuticals will be weapons against a range of viral diseases.

Medical diagnostics is another promising target. The understanding of cellular processes that biochips will generate means a greatly expanded ability to pick up the early warning signals that cells in the initial stages of disease give off. One of today's examples is PSA, which when present at higher than normal levels is an early indicator of prostate cancer. Future biochips will look for a wide range of such indicators, further strengthening the fight against diseases such as AIDS and cancer where early detection is the key to successful treatment.

In the chemical industry, experiments conducted with biochips will lead to the discovery of improved catalysts. Look for the expanding use of biocatalysts that work under ambient conditions, rather than at today's conditions of extreme temperature and pressure, that are environmentally benign, yielding fewer potentially dangerous byproducts, and that accept a wider range of starting materials. Consumer products are already being impacted by new biologically produced materials, such as a new environmentally benign detergent for stone washed jeans, a new DuPont fabric produced by a fermentation route that yields much more stretch and wearability, and new biologically produced materials that replace environmentally harmful chemicals in leather processing.

In agriculture, biochips will be a key tool for full understanding of the effects on plant chemistry of proposed genetic modifications. This will help in achieving the benefits of the genetic revolution while protecting against any possible risks that might be introduced by the new genetic modification technologies.

In energy, ethanol, an alternative to gasoline, is today produced by an expensive process requiring a subsidy to remain economical. This is because the starting material is starch, where food uses compete with fuel applications. Biocatalysts for producing ethanol from cellulose instead of starch would revolutionize the economics by extending ethanol production to parts of plants that now go to waste. "You could continue to use the corn kernels for food," Dordick notes, "while using the corn leaves and stalks for fuel."