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Are we prisoners of the technology moment?

Mark Boggess Published on 26 September 2015

At some point, everyone wonders about the current state of technology in his life, and some conclude that mankind has peaked and will go no further. Charles H. Duell, who was the commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office in 1899, is famously credited with the following quote: “Everything that can be invented has been invented,” which, it turns out, he did not actually say – but the point is well taken.

Most of us have limited appreciation for the future of technology and how it may impact us. We are prisoners of the moment.

To keep my children a bit more interested in science and technology, I occasionally try to paint a picture of what I consider to be the most impactful technologies looming on the horizon.

This summer, as a family, we discussed four technologies specifically: grapheme, quantum computers, room-temperature superconductors and controlled thermonuclear fusion reactors.

Graphene

Graphene is a one-atom layer of carbon with remarkable properties. It is 200 times stronger than steel, pliable, conducts electricity and heat, and is nearly transparent.

The potential applications for graphene are extraordinary, from energy storage to water filtration (sea water to potable water) to advanced composites (paints, lubricants, oils, packaging, etc.) and numerous biological engineering applications. Graphene will impact agriculture starting with improved energy systems and sophisticated water filters (possibly even for salt water).

Quantum computers

Every government and computer engineering lab in the world is working on quantum computing technology because the first to achieve it will have an enormous advantage over the rest of the world – both good and bad.

How will quantum computers be different? Let’s say we want to search the entire 37 million books in the Library of Congress for a particular phrase. Today we could use a “supercomputer” to do the job, and in a matter of a few hours, the supercomputer would go through each book very rapidly, page by page and catalog the chosen phrase.

A quantum computer will do the same thing – except it will check every page in every book at exactly the same time, completing the job millions of times faster than even the best supercomputer available today. The future of data analysis will be revolutionized for economic, business, genetic, environmental and other large data mining and applications.

Extraordinary advancements will be possible for weather forecasting, crop and animal genetic improvement, astronomy, personalized medicine, travel time and safety, and marketing.

Room-temperature superconductors

Superconductors are materials that conduct electricity with zero resistance. Superconductivity exists today in several forms – unfortunately, all of which function only at extremely cold temperatures. The search is ongoing for superconductors that will function at temperatures above freezing.

When realized, these superconductors will revolutionize how electricity is stored and managed. Examples include high-speed trains with magnetic levitation, vastly more effective computers, MRI imaging and medical equipment, improved water filtration systems and the ability to transmit and store energy almost limitlessly.

Controlled thermonuclear fusion reactors

And the holy grail of energy technologies is controlled thermonuclear fusion reactors. Thermonuclear fusion is the process by which two hydrogen atoms are fused, creating helium and releasing vast amounts of energy. However, unlike nuclear fission reactions (think nuclear power plants), fusion does not create a radioactive waste product.

We all realize the benefits of nuclear fusion every day because that is exactly what is happening in our sun. If a fusion reactor is built on earth, it would provide a virtually limitless supply of energy without the need for fossil fuels and without the production of greenhouse gases or radioactive waste. It would produce extraordinary power without the environmental burden. Imagine the impact on the way we live and farm today.

Forage technologies

While these technologies are potential game-changers and have the potential to revolutionize the way we live and work, their impact will not be felt in agriculture for many years. Consequently, you might ask, “What technologies are emerging that may hit a bit closer to home now?” The most significant technologies for forage producers are those relating to the genetic improvement of crops and forages, some of which are already being realized.

You are most likely well aware of the impact of genetic technologies such as Roundup Ready corn and alfalfa. Roundup Ready options are growing and have clearly revolutionized agriculture around the world. Other genetic advances include Bt corn and reduced-lignin alfalfa varieties, with more to come.

So are we at the pinnacle of the genetic revolution in crops and forages, or are we just getting started? That is a difficult question to answer for several reasons – biological, political and socioeconomic.

Biologically, with regard to understanding the agronomic relationships between the genetic makeup of a plant (genotype – G), the production environment (E) and the management systems (M) that will be applied, we have much to learn. Most forage plants still do not have a quality genome sequence, and we clearly do not understand the vast majority of the complex relationships between the GEM factors.

Ironically, new varieties, improved production systems and climate change will continue to increase the complexity of these challenges. If we use a scale of 1 to 100, where 100 is a perfect understanding of G x E x M and zero is no understanding, we are at about 5. We do not even know all of the functioning parts for many genetic and physiological systems and are just now determining ways to identify simple breeding parameters, such as individual plant parentage.

The second question may be even more complex. How will we define, develop and defend genetic modification- or GMO-based technologies in the future? And what are the socioeconomic implications associated with these definitions? Clearly, this is a contentious and complicated arena which promises to become even more so with the arrival of new approaches to plant breeding and genetic enhancement.

There are many drivers in this discussion, but 9.5 billion souls in 2050 may be the most important of them all. Clearly, there is a lot of work to do, but food security will trump special-interest concerns as long as GMO organisms do not demonstrate any significant negative attributes so feared by many – so far so good in that regard.

The third challenge is funding. Many agronomic commodities are very limited in their ability to fund even minimal levels of genetic and physiological research. Most large companies are much more focused on short-term economic impact, i.e., product development focused on significant short-term economic value, as opposed to long-term focus and investment in the basic research required to achieve maximum technological socioeconomic benefit.

Consequently, to maintain focus and progress in fundamental research, public research dollars are critically important. Unfortunately, these dollars are also quite limited for most forage crops, particularly those not associated with bioenergy production.

So what are some of the emerging genetic technologies that will further revolutionize forage plant breeding? For the sake of brevity, I will simply say that there are many exciting strategies being developed, but the current game-changer is “genome editing.”

Genome editing is accomplished most often with a technology known as clustered, regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), although there are other options.

These technologies enable the manipulation of individual genes in an organism without disruption of the larger genome. Consequently, conventional breeding efforts to back-cross a single gene into a population, which may take several generations, can now be accomplished in a single generation without changing the original genetic makeup of the organism.

Think about that. In animals, this technology could easily be applied to correct a genetic deficiency, such as bovine leukocyte adhesion deficiency in Holstein cattle, or to create an exact copy of a genetically superior animal that was polled instead of horned. CRISPR technologies are already being used in human and agronomic applications to expediently and efficiently identify gene functions, model genetic diseases and correct defective genes for therapeutic applications.

CRISPR technologies have further enabled the development of standardized, general methods for inducing targeted deletions, insertions and precise genome sequence changes in a broad range of organisms, which will also empower a greater scientific understanding of the critical GEM relationships discussed previously.

Interestingly, the GMO versus non-GMO discussion for gene editing is even more intriguing because, in many cases, no foreign DNA, or even DNA from unrelated organisms, is introduced. The question then is: “Has an organism with a simple knockout or the simple transfer of an existing allele actually been genetically modified?”

This question is especially pertinent since many gene edits will be undetectable in the modified organism. And there will also be many applications for agriculture where the introduction of an unrelated gene or allele (foreign DNA) will create tremendous value, which will further complicate the GMO discussion. Clarity is pending, and it remains to be seen how and when these technologies will impact today’s farmers and ranchers. Stay tuned.  FG

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