ELECTRONIC JOURNAL OF BIOTECHNOLOGY
....MOVING FROM SCIENCE TO DEVELOPMENT...
The Colours of Biotechnology: Science, Development and Humankind
Biotechnology and the world of colours have always been intertwined. Nature’s hues and tints are captured in their natural or synthetic state in a variety of market products. The flower markets of natural blood-red roses and gene-designed blue roses recently released in Japan are apt examples.
To-date notwithstanding the awe-inspiring snip and tuck techniques of genetic engineering, the legendary ‘Black Tulip’ of French author Alexandre Dumas still remains the ‘Holy Grail of the Tulip world’. Several types from ‘Tulipa Queen of Night’ (1944) to T.’Black Hero’ (1984) constitute ‘the category of the ‘blackest of the officially ‘purple’ tulips’.
Nature’s wealth of colours have inspired celebrity painters and poets ---French-born Hilaire Belloc describes in verse the morphology of The Microbe with its ‘seven tufted tails with lots of pink and purple spots.’; and schoolchildren to explore the microbial world through the ‘looking-glass’ of Winogradsky’s column with its purple and green bands ---consortia of the green and purple photosynthetic bacteria. Blue-green cyanobacteria contribute to the economy of Nature’s important biogeochemical cycles – the nitrogen cycle. The Red Sea may derive its colour and name from the red-cyanobacterium -- Trichodesmium erythraeum, but the destruction of numerous fish is due to the Red Tide population of the plant-like red-brown dinoflagellates.Pigments help classify the brown, yellow, red and green algae; and protozoa and yeasts such as Euglena and Pichia. Nature’s colour artistry occurs throughout the biospectrum incorporating interalia green and purple bacteria, antibiotic-producing species of Streptomyces and Nocardia, fungi that colour cheeses, blue-green anoles, rainbow papaya and trout, and green fluorescent proteins responsible for the coloration of diverse corals and anemones. Green, yellow, orange-red and purple-blue chromoproteins are the raison d’être of fabled reef colours varying in the spectrum of daylight conditions. Verily, Nature’s palette of pigments and paints underscores the need of bioresources centres to capture, classify and conserve the planet’s biotreasury lest extinction result from benign neglect and commercial exploitation.
‘Biomimicry…… is a new science that studies nature's best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. ……Organisms use two methods to create colour without paint: internal pigments and the structural colour that makes tropical butterflies, peacocks, and hummingbirds so gorgeous. A peacock is a completely brown bird. Its “colours” result from light scattering off regularly spaced melanin rods, and interference effects through thin layers of keratin (the same stuff as your fingernails).’
New military clothing uses fluorescent colours, biosensors and bioinformatics at the nano-level to mimic natural phenomena of biomimicry and chameleonic colours. Geofabrics coloured for appropriate use contribute to landscape and urban management --- conservation of golf courses and park-lawns, and safeguarding of soil embankments and floral gardens.
The creative and aesthetic instinct of humankind is embedded in clean and green technologies. The first biodegradable green credit card was issued in 1997. ‘Coral proteins put on the red light’ in marine waters, and coloured glow fish function as indicators of pollution in aquatic reservoirs. Colours used in biotextile grafts make attractive and acceptable use of bioceramic materials in dentistry, medicine orthopaedics, tissue engineering and veterinary science.
Genetic research has contributed to understanding human eye and skin colour. The genesis of coat colours of cats, dogs, rabbits, ponies, etc. has been deciphered. The head colour of birds too. Coat colour alleles are used to produce sublines of mice for studies concerning ageing, cancer, cardiovascular, neurobiological and reproductive biology. The Big Blue mouse is used to research cancer and neurodegenerative disease. Yellow mice help localize gene mutations on specific chromosomes.Custom-made mice ---the albino, cream, brown and black models are research keys studying tumour biology. Indeed, ‘the ability to follow coat colours’ requires ‘no complicated tools such as molecular genotyping’ in ‘the breeding and maintenance of mutant strains.’
Colours inspire, motivate and uplift humankind. Clinics and psychological facilities use soothing colours to aid convalescents. Colours exist in sports too. Winners express a sense of national achievement and pride in draping themselves in their national flags. In EURO 2004 – soccer and biopsychology met. To enhance local psychobiological advantage and patriotism the coach of the home team requested fans ‘to wear something red or green’ their national colours ‘toface the orange shirts’ of their opponents’ in a qualifying match.
Corporate biotech is engaged in ‘chasing the rainbow.’ Former Vice-President Al Gore envisioned the ‘pot of gold at the end of the biotechnology rainbow.’ Entrepreneurs, however, focus their quest ‘somewhere over the genetic rainbow’. UN policy-makers use colour-codes in combating, and designing solutions to problems of hunger and poverty. The UN Economic Commission for Africa in 2002 described ‘Realizing the Promise of Green Biotechnology for the Poor’ and ‘Tackling the Diseases of Poverty through Red Biotechnology’ ---technologies that involve using genetically-engineered mosquitoes with the potential to eradicate malaria; and gene modified foods ---golden rice and orange bananas, enriched with vitamin A to counteract the onset of blindness.
‘Ethical challenges of green biotechnology for developing countries’ arise, and, ‘whether transgenic plants should carry distinguishing markers, such as distinguishing colours, so that they can be identified and not intermixed with other plants of the same species’ is under review for use in regulatory work. In space biology research, transgenic plants using blue and green colours are being developed as biosensors to indicate presence of certain kinds of stress.
Nutritionists talk of a rainbow diet rich in micronutrients and vitamins that make food naturally attractive and appetizing for a ‘good feel’status. Traditional medicine recommends eating naturally coloured foods possessing natural phytonutrients in their skin ingredients. A judicious choice of red (meat), green (salads), yellow (cereals and fruits) and violet (vegetables) foods contributes to the sustenance of long-term good health in combating artificial diabetes and obesity. Blue cheese and black truffles are delicacies without added food colorants; and supermarkets may soon offer carrots in red and purple with the orange variety. ‘Research into different coloured carrots is not about making a fashion statement but about potential health improvements’.
In agro-trade, traffic-colours of amber and green define policies that distort trade of certain commodities. Amber box policies signify ‘caution’ relating to ‘price supports, marketing loans and subsidies, and livestock quantities’. Green box policies cover ‘research, pest and disease control, and crop insurance and conservation programs’. Blue box policies --a temporary WTO category that accommodates transatlantic negotiations, are ‘redefined amber box policies concerning production limiting programs’.
Biotechnologies described in coluors spotlight salient aspects of research for economic development. The Cordia-EuropaBio Convention 2003 in Vienna in ‘Blue Biotechnology - Exploitation of Marine Resources’ focused on the ‘Ocean of Opportunities’ for sustaining development through rational use of marine bioresources. Europe’s catalytic role in ‘Green Biotechnology in Africa’ resides in collaborative biotech education, research, development, and market ventures.
In January 2004, a European Commission meeting at the Biosciences ‘Technology Facility’, University of York, UK, recognized that any ‘biotechnology platform, developing bio-based products would have to be a concerted marriage of the ‘White’ together with the ‘Green’ and ‘Blue’ biotechnology sectors’. Unlocking of bottlenecks could be achieved through programmes utilizing ‘the synergies between green, white and blue biotechnologies.’
In 2005, the 12th European Biotechnology Congress will use 4 biotech motors: white (industrial); red (pharmaceutical), green (food and feed) and blue (environment) in ‘Bringing Genomes to Life’ in Denmark.
The use of colour codes is seemingly the lingua franca of science policy in Germany. Sixty percent of the 253 biotechnological firms with some 43,000 employees in a survey by Hessen’s Ministry of Economy were specializing in red biotechnology (diagnosis and treatment of diseases); 4% were specializing in green biotechnology (agriculture, food production); and, 1% was in grey biotechnology (pure industrial processes with an environmental nuance). In Baden-Württemberg, over half of the biotech companies excel in red biotechnology with smaller numbers in the grey and green sectors. German market studies emphasize the white and red biotechnologies. Red biotechnology accounts for some 86% of all biotech companies. Green biotechnology with 27% is followed by grey biotechnology with 10%.
In the USA, a 5 colour-coded security system from green (low) through blue (guarded), yellow (elevated), and orange (high) to red (severe) has been decreed. Adoption of protective and self-defense responses involves all levels of vigilance and preparedness to combat and neutralize the threats of terrorism and those of bioterrorism that aim at destruction of that country’s security and its peoples. Colour alert systems for air pollution (USA) and inclement weather (Mozambique) are indicators of time available for precautionary action by people susceptible to asthmatic and respiratory diseases as well as in offsetting loss of life and bioeconomic resources.
In satire, a ‘five (colour) level Mad Cow alert’ exists. The alert levels range from eating cow parts (green) through limited beef consumption (blue) and exercise of planned protective measures (yellow) to symptomatic mooing and chewing of the cud (orange) to a switch to fermented food - tofu (red).
Using colours to describe biotechnology constitutes a new mechanism in:
Dr. R. Colwell, Director, US National Foundation at a US-EC Biotech meeting in 2003 said: “If we could weave a Flag of Biotechnology, some say, it would feature three colours: red for medical applications, green for agricultural and white for industrial. In fact this flag may accrue even more colours over time as environmental and marine biotech and other applications add their stripes’.
In that context, the colour index below may be a useful guide with further additions as biotechnology and colours intertwine over time in promoting public perception and understanding of biotech applications for the cause of science, development, and the current and post human future of humankind.
Edgar J. DaSilva