Bioengineering is an important emerging discipline within the modern world. This sample biology essay examines the nature and applications of bioengineering in some depth. The essay will proceed through five parts.
- Conceptual definition of bioengineering
- Technological innovations on bioengineering
- Specific application of stem cell research
- Application of genetic engineering of organisms
- Moral implications of bioengineering as it moves into the future
Understanding the meaning of bioengineering
In truth, the term bioengineering has a few different but closely interrelated meanings. The University of California, Berkeley has defined bioengineering as:
“the application of engineering principles to biological systems. A very broad area of study, bioengineering can include elements of electrical and mechanical engineering, computer science, materials, chemistry and biology” (paragraph 4).
The main idea, though, is that within the discipline of bioengineering, living organisms are considered from a systems perspective, with an eye toward using technology in order to improve, alter, and/or manipulate the properties of those living systems. This often involves working in conjunction with the field of healthcare, but bioengineering can also involve work within the areas of agricultural development.
Likewise, Imperial College London has defined the narrow concept of biomedical engineering as:
“the acquisition of new knowledge and understanding of living systems through the innovative and substantive application of experimental and analytical techniques based on the engineering sciences,” and also in terms of “the development of new devices, algorithms, processes and systems that advance biology and medicine and improve medical practice and health care delivery” (1).
The latter of these definitions can be understood as specific to biomedical engineering, whereas the first definition applies more generally to bioengineering as such. Again, this discipline is fundamentally defined by its application of the principles of engineering to organic systems. The results of this application usually consist of discrete technologies that can be used to change the functioning of the organic systems in congruence with desired objectives.
Using bioengineering in the medical sciences
MacRay, writing for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers has described several technologies that have emerged as a result of the innovations of bioengineering. These include: the use of electronic signals as opposed to biopsies for the detection of cases of melanoma, “electronic aspirin” for the treatment of chronic and severe headaches, devices that allow people with diabetes to monitor their own health status without pricking themselves with needles, robots that can be used to check up on patients in a systematic way, and artificial heart valves and other devices that can provide support for various bodily organs.
This is clearly a quite diverse list of technologies—and this is reflective of the basic diversity of bioengineering (and more narrowly, biomedical engineering) as a discipline. Despite the diversity, one thing that all these technologies have in common is that they engage with human beings within a conceptual context in which the human being is understood as an organic system who is interfacing with the relevant technology.
Medical technology is one application of bioengineering that can be expected to continue growing significantly over the next several years. In part, this is due to the investment in health information technologies that are more or less built into the very structure of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. As the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has indicated, for example, that the organization:
“developed and codified a policy and financing structure designed to provide States with tools needed to achieve the immediate and substantial investment in information technology systems” that were required by the Affordable Care Act” (paragraph 1).
The proliferation of information technology systems within the healthcare system can be expected to include the expansion of the role of the electronic health care record in care delivery processes, which in turn could open up new ways in with bioengineered medical technologies could interface with the patient over the course of those processes.
Stem Cell Research and the ethical debate among biologists
One of the most promising, and perhaps most important, applications of bioengineering in the contemporary world consists of the discipline’s contribution to stem cell research. As Vunjak-Novakovic and Scadden have indicated, bioengineering plays a fundamental role in helping scientists and researchers conceptualize and model the nature of stem cells, so that they can then further investigate the ways in which stem cells could be modified, altered, or manipulated in order to meet relevant objectives.
This modeling is done in conjunction with the discipline of biology, which provides the actual organic and clinical data upon which the modeling of bioengineering is based. For example, biology may contribute information about the basic parameters of tissue generation, and bioengineering may then build on this information in order to make projections within a given experimental setting.
In this application as well, bioengineering can still be fundamentally defined in terms of its capacity to conceptualize organisms and biological components as living systems. Once so conceptualized, principles of mathematics and modeling can be applied in order to better understand those systems. Within the context of stem cell research, in particular, the system consists not of human beings but rather of cells and tissues.
The idea, though, is that by better understanding the ways in which these cells and tissues may behave within certain experimental conditions, it will become possible to actually create those conditions and thereby create the kinds of cells and tissues that may be able to cure illnesses and medical conditions that are as yet incurable at the present time. If breakthroughs occur in this area, then this could significantly improve the quality of life of a vast number of people.
Bioengineering’s impact on agriculture
Finally, a third important application of bioengineering consists of the alteration of the genetic structure of food crops within the area of agriculture. This application of bioengineering is often called genetic engineering. This is because in this application, plants are conceptualized as organic systems, and then genetic changes are introduced into these systems. As Thompson has written:
“Ever since the latter part of the 19 century, when Gregor Mendel discovered that characteristics in pea plants could be inherited, scientists have been improving plants by changing their genetic makeup;” but “today, to change a plant’s traits, scientists are able to use the tools of modern biotechnology to insert a single gene—or often, two or three genes—into the crop to give it new, advantageous characteristics” (paragraphs 2-3).
That is, crops were “engineered” in the past through genetic manipulation of the natural breeding process, whereas today, bioengineering enables the direct manipulation of the very genetic structures of the plants.
This kind of bioengineering is often done in order to improve certain characteristics of the plants. For example, a food crop that is genetically modified in a certain way may be able to produce a significantly greater yield come harvest time than its non-modified counterpart. This could potentially help address the significant social issues of starvation and malnutrition: much more food could be produced using much less space, time, and energy than has been historically possible thus far.
The nature of this kind of bioengineering, however, comes with an important moral shadow. In fact, this shadow exists for all of the bioengineering in general, although it perhaps becomes most obviously clear in the case of genetic engineering, since this involves human beings directly tampering with the genomes of other organisms. At this point, then, it is worth delving a little further into the moral dimension of the discipline of bioengineering.
Moral implications of bioengineering
To an extent, bioengineering can be understood as almost intrinsically problematic, insofar as it functions according to the basic premise that living beings can be conceptually understood as more or less mechanical systems. At the metaphysical level, this would seem to be undergirded by a kind of materialistic ideology which, if taken too far, could culminate in dehumanization and a more general disrespect for the nature of life itself.
For example, the medical technology of robotic monitoring of hospital patients eliminates the intersubjective, human dimension of actual caring (Watson). Likewise, stem cell research can also become problematic insofar as it implies treating the sources of life and regeneration, which are seen as being contained within stem cells, as means to some kind of end (i.e. medical healing) as opposed to fundamentally mysterious and intrinsically valuable powers in and of themselves.
In summary, this essay has consisted of an overview of the nature and applications of bioengineering in the contemporary world. A key conclusion that can be drawn here is that the responsible use of bioengineering could clearly alleviate suffering and improve the human condition in a number of ways. However, it is also important to not lose sight of the moral dilemmas and problems inherent in the project of bioengineering. If these are not addressed, there is significant risk that the bad effects of this discipline could end up outweighing the good.
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. “Information Technology Systems & Data.” Medicaid.gov, 2013. Web. 14 Aug. 2015. http://www.medicaid.gov/AffordableCareAct/Provisions/Information-Technology-Systems-and-Data.html.
MacRae, Michael. “Top 5 Medical Technology Innovations.” American Society of Mechanical Engineers., Mar. 2013. Web. 14 Aug. 2015. https://www.asme.org/engineering-topics/articles/bioengineering/top-5-medical-technology-innovations.
Imperial College London. “Department of Bioengineering.” 2015. Web. 14 Aug. 2015. http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/pls/portallive/docs/1/51182.PDF.
Thompson, Larry. “Are Bioengineered Foods Safe?” AgBioWorld. Jan. 2000. Web. 14 Aug. 2015. http://www.agbioworld.org/biotech-info/articles/biotech-art/fda_mag.html.
University of California, Berkeley. “What is Bioengineering?” 2015. Web. 14 Aug. 2015. http://bioeng.berkeley.edu/about-us/what-is-bioengineering.
Vunjak-Novakovic, Gordana, and David T. Scadden. “Biomimetic Platforms for Human Stem Cell Research.” Cell Stem Cell 8.3 (2011): 252-261. Web. 14 Aug. 2015. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1934590911000658.
Watson, Jean. Human Caring Science: A Theory of Nursing. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2011. Print.
Wright, Brian D. “Plant Genetic Engineering and Intellectual Property Protection.” University of California, Publication 8186. n.d. Web. 14 Aug. 2015. http://anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu/pdf/8186.pdf.