Digitising The Natural World: High Roads And Risks

The answer to better healthcare in Africa does not rest on the success of any single technology.

Humans have been engineering the natural world for more than 14,000 years, domesticating and selectively breeding animals in an often slow process. Lately, technology has enabled advanced genetic modification that enables DNA sequencing, gene editing, and a range of emerging bioengineering techniques. Our ability to adapt and engineer nature has grown exponentially, but this brings with it certain risks.

 Just as we utilise these new tools to solve some of our greatest biological challenges – curing cancer, addressing mental health problems, developing drought-resistant crops or eradicating malaria – we also run the risk of unleashing previously unfathomable self-made disasters upon the natural world.

 The combinatorial nature of new technologies

Here in Africa, the priority is on applying for advances in bioengineering to improve the delivery of healthcare across the continent. According to one study, Africa has 24 percent of the world’s occurrence of disease, but only 3 percent of its healthcare workers – and less than 1.5 percent of the global healthcare budget is spent on African soil.

Our greatest opportunity lies in the combinatorial nature of these technologies. The answer to better healthcare in Africa does not rest on the success of any single technology: instead, it is in how we put different pieces together to develop solutions that are relevant, affordable and effective in Africa.

But it’s important to be cognisant of the risks involved, too. Even in something as simple as developing antibiotics, humans have unwittingly created potentially larger problems, such as drug-resistant superbugs.

The rise of the superbugs

One British study calculated that 700,000 people die every year because of antimicrobial resistance. By 2050, this could grow to 10-million deaths and cost the global economy as much as $100-trillion (~R1.166-trillion). This has prompted the World Health Organisation to warn that, without urgent coordinated action by a multitude of stakeholders, the world could be heading to a post-antibiotic era, in which even common infections and minor injuries would become untreatable – and lethal.

Following the outbreak of the Zika virus in South America, and the prevailing risks of malaria in many regions, some scientists have proposed radical steps to safeguard humans from the estimated 100 (out of a total of more than 3,500) species of mosquito known to carry parasites that cause human disease. More than a million people, mostly from developing nations, die each year due to mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, and yellow fever.

This has prompted the question: would it not be easier and safer to simply eradicate the insect entirely?

There are, however, hugely important questions around the environmental impact of such an action: what type of organism, for example, would fill the void left by mosquitoes. Would it pose a lesser, equal, or even greater risk to our health? Moral and philosophical questions around the ethics of taking such a drastic step also give us pause.

Encouragingly, scientists are taking these risks and concerns seriously: one group of scientists have created a strain of transgenic mosquito that is designed to reduce the Zika-carrying mosquito population by passing a lethal gene to their offspring, naturally reducing the risk of the disease spreading.

In Australia, scientists are using a naturally occurring bacteria to reduce the ability of mosquitoes to pass dengue between people. And scientists in London are developing a sensor that can detect each different species of mosquito by their distinctive wing beat. They plan to equip rural villagers in South East Asia with wearable acoustic detectors to track disease-bearing mosquitoes and helping them manage future outbreaks.

The bits and bytes of biology

Biology is at its heart an information science. As we increasingly convert nature’s code into a stream of signals that includes the bits and bytes of genes, DNA, proteins and more, we gain the ability to analyse and process the data to find patterns and understand how these patterns work in different environments.

Here, technology companies have an opportunity to provide the platform that can process and analyse the data in faster and different ways, equipping medical professionals with the power to solve some of our greatest challenges – and take advantage of the immense benefits of this digital future.