Biotech - the Early Years

Early Biotech
Image from Bernd Helfert

The Difficult Early Years

As early as the start of the Information Age, humanity had already made critical breakthroughs in the field of biotechnology. By the middle years of the first century AT (around the turn of the twenty-first century c.e), the Human Genome Project was successful in completely sequencing the human genetic code, with many other species — ranging from single-celled prokaryotes to complex eukaryotic organisms — having their genomes sequenced and recorded concurrently and in the decades following. Meanwhile, advances in the fields of epigenetics and proteomics increased scientific understanding of the mechanics of gene expression, which in turn enabled the first experiments in genetic engineering and cloning, and eventually the creation of the first single-celled synthetic organisms. To some, these exciting developments seemed to herald a new age of biotechnology, the first steps toward complete mastery over organic life itself.

However, despite this promising prelude, it would be a very long time before anything resembling that vision became a reality. While it is perhaps tempting to attribute the slow progress of the late first century (early- to mid-twenty-first century of the time) to cultural factors such as neo-luddism and ideological dogma, such a conclusion would not be an accurate analysis of the times. Certainly the zeitgeist of the period played a role — environmental activists feared the potential of genetically modified species to spread uncontrollably if released into the wild, some religious groups decried certain forms of biotech as interfering with "God's work," and many simply felt uncomfortable with the idea of consuming foodstuffs and ingredients whose genetic makeup had been tampered with. More pertinent was the simple fact that biotech in its infancy did not meet the safety and regulatory standards necessary for widespread implementation and funding.

Available information from around 50-60 AT contains numerous records of accidents and abuses by various biotech corporations of the period, with many of the most publicized incidents occurring in the agricultural sector. With the advent of genomic modification as a corporate tool, major agribusinesses of the time began producing and selling altered organisms, frequently without placing adequate regulations on the distribution of their products. The result was a host of new kinds of litigation and scandal, ranging from small-scale farmers being sued for growing plants with patented genes (having been obtained via cross-pollination or windblown seeds) to consumers suing companies for distributing foodstuffs modified to produce potentially allergenic or toxic chemicals. As has been the case with large companies since time immemorial, there were also countless instances of corrupt business practices, corner-cutting, and unconfirmed allegations of both. As legal controversies such as these became increasingly commonplace, national governments were forced to respond with new laws, sanctions and regulations to keep the consequences of the burgeoning technology from getting out of hand. In some states, genetically-modified organisms were either heavily restricted or banned from the market entirely.

Despite this backlash, commercial application of biotech in other areas of the economy was met with less resistance, and indeed it is here that some of the greatest breakthroughs of the early biotech era took place. In the industrial sector, the refinement of genetic modification techniques allowed for the engineering of proteins, enzymes and even entire cells tailored to synthesize specific products, leading to drastic reductions in costs as various aspects of manufacturing and resource production became obsolete. Advances in medical biotechnology during this time resulted in the development of numerous useful and life-saving applications, such as growing artificial organs for transplant patients (achieved first by using stem cells on a tissue scaffold, and later via whole-organ "printing" and in vivo regeneration), and manipulating the cellular mechanisms of a patient to resist bacterial infection without antibiotics. The crowning achievement of medical biotech during the this time was undoubtedly the "cure" for cancer, a system of treatments incorporating gene therapy, simple nanomachines and specially engineered "tumour-killer" cells and viruses.

Biotech Enters Dangerous Territory

During these first few decades, some of the more extreme applications of biotech predicted by Atomic-Age and Information-Age futurists — human augmentation, synthetic macroscale organisms, and biowarfare — remained firmly in the realm of science fiction. However, in the interest of opening up new market niches, a number of large biotech corporations funded and executed research into these areas. Because of the controversial nature of such projects, significant effort was made to keep knowledge of them from the public and mainstream media.

Extremely dangerous experiments, such as the creation of weaponized pathogens and the gengineering retroviruses to reprogram an adult human genome, were performed in underground laboratories and on semi-submersible platforms located in international waters. Several of these facilities were destroyed using their built-in thermite sterilisation charges, almost always following the escape of a potentially dangerous microbe. As a result of the risks involved, researchers were offered exorbitant salaries for positions on these platforms.

Biotech comes Into Its Own

In the second century AT (second half of the 21st century c.e.), continued refinements in biotech resulted in even the more extreme applications finally meeting industry and safety standards. This was followed by a collapse in costs that rendered many technologies accessible to the mainstream public for the first time. Several countries allowed for parents, at least those who could afford it, to use services that gave them control over the genetic makeup of their offspring. Though this practice was enormously beneficial in reducing the frequency of congenital birth defects and genetic disorders, cases of more extensive genetic tailoring were rare. In part this was due to the unpredictable interactions of hand-picked genes during expression; a number of "designer children" born in the first decade after the inception of the technology developed unfortunate complications that, while rarely fatal, affected quality of life in a variety of ways. Litigation and public backlash arising from these incidents resulted in considerable research being devoted to avoiding such problems in the future, and several years later a "second generation" was born without any major physiological issues. However, new problems soon became apparent: as this new generation grew into young adulthood, many who had been optimized by their parents for physical and mental excellence found themselves subject to novel social pressures and expectations as an indirect result of their "superior" genes. These factors led to some developing psychological disorders, manifesting as either megalomaniac tendencies and criminal activity or as deep existential angst that often led to suicide. These cases received significant media attention, and reinforced the inclination of most families with access to such services to avoid all but the most subtle modifications to their child's genome.

In the 130's (dawn of the 22nd century c.e.), a flurry of biotech companies sprang up to exploit the various new niches created by the maturity of the field, including Biotopia, GeneTEK, ModernBody, Chang Agribusiness, and countless others. Biotopia released the first rudimentary antecedent of the bioforge during this period, though their prohibitively high prices limited their availability to wealthy clients.

Perhaps ironically, due to the early discord between biotech and the environmental movement, this period also saw a large degree of synergy between biotech corporations and environmental scientists. The earliest fruits of this cooperation were projects aimed at neutralizing several of the longstanding problems plaguing the planet's marine environments, such as intermittent oil spills and the ever-growing masses of plastic trash accumulating in ocean gyres; these goals were accomplished through the strategic dispersal of gengineered fungi and bacteria, modified to process various forms of hydrocarbons. Subsequent effort sought to reverse problems such as wildlife habitat destabilization, the increasing scarcity of drinkable water, and the accelerating extinction of animal species. After this last undertaking resulted in several recently-extinct vertebrate species being successfully "brought back" via cloning and in-vitro breeding, it was a natural next step for scientists to attempt the resurrection of species that had been extinct for significantly longer periods of time. The result was the nascent field of lazurogenics.

When humankind turned its gaze starward with early interplanetary colonization efforts and the construction of orbital microworlds, drastic restructuring and augmentation of the human phenotype — up to this point still highly controversial — entered consideration as a legitimate aid to the spread of human civilization. The result was the first cladization of the human race, later to be termed the "root of the anthropogenic radiation," into splices, tweaks and cyborgs. Humanity, once subject to the forces of natural selection or to accidental selection in its own technological environment, now had control over its genetic destiny.

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Development Notes
Text by Martin Andreas Cieslik, M. Alan Kazlev and Andrew P.
Initially published on 27 March 2001.

Originally inspired by a timeline by A.R. Mooneyham Substantially revised 02 January 2015 by Andrew P.