Biotechnology is a rapidly developing field. Even though the field has been around for many years, today’s biotechnology applications are far more complex and relevant than ever before. The fundamental aim at the core of this field is to find viable solutions to meet human needs, in turn improving our quality of life.

Today, biotechnology is mainly utilized in four major ways: healthcare, agriculture, industrial applications of crops, and environmental applications. Biotechnology practices are responsible for developing life-saving drugs, studying and bettering the natural environment, and modifying genes to create more resilient crops. The potential for biotechnology is enormous – there’s no doubt that further research in this field can help better the world.

Current Limitations in Biotech

Unfortunately, biotechnology still faces many challenges when it comes to teaching and researching. One of the limitations in the field includes the abnormally high cost of education as a result of expensive lab equipment, maintenance, and the need for upgrades. Due to this, the cost of STEM degrees can end up being significantly higher than degrees in other fields.

Secondly, biotechnology cannot be taught without practical lessons. Theoretical knowledge can only go so far, as biotechnology is a field that demands real experiments. Due to this, online learning becomes nearly impossible; students are required to be present at laboratories, some of which are high-security enclosures and deal with dangerous testing. Lab time is essential and is a substantially limiting factor when it comes to studying.

Thirdly, biotechnology, in particular, is a resource-intensive field. It’s not enough to have lab equipment; biomaterial (plants and animals) is necessary to conduct tests and experiments. Procuring and storing biomaterial comes with its own set of complications, like ethical concerns and ensuring the presence of adequate personnel to continuously monitor it.

Moral and ethical loyalties simply add to the many limitations posed by this field. Hofstra University states:

“The public opinion of biotechnology is actually very divided, with many reactions based on emotions rather than on facts or science. While some react with awe and admiration, others react with skepticism and even fear, leading to some very strong opposition. This is further complicated by the varying support of biotechnology in the various fields in which it is used.”

Considering the many benefits of biotechnology – from finding cures to complex diseases to alleviating food insecurity – it is important to find ways to overcome these limitations. Thankfully, virtual reality (VR) can help.

Virtual Reality (VR) and biotechnology
Virtual Reality (VR) can play a role in making the field more accessible and overcoming a number of limitations in terms of research.

The Role of VR

While VR cannot yet alleviate all the public preconceptions about biotechnology practices, it can play a role in making the field more accessible and overcoming a number of limitations in terms of research. Virtual reality has already been incorporated into many streams of science – with staggeringly positive results. In fact, VR will generate $30 billion by 2020. Today, VR is truly changing the way research is done, with many exciting applications in the field of biotechnology. Let’s take a look at some of the VR’s benefits to biotech:

Visualize Complex Structures

Genes and cells have complex structures that can be incredibly difficult to comprehend with only 2D images from microscopes. VR allows for these small structures to be visualized in 3D, making for a better understanding of their functions.

VR is used to visualize complex structures. For instance, ConfocalVR is a VR tool that visualizes cells. These cell models were built from data obtained through microscopes in 2D. ConfocalVR is completely adjustable — from color and brightness to view angles. The best part is that it is licensed for free nonprofit usage, solving the problem of unaffordable research equipment.

The VR system used by the Wyss Center at the University of Geneva is another example of how VR can help visualize complex structures. This system helps researchers visualize and even “step inside” a 3D model of a mouse brain. The model is based on data from their high-performance light-sheet microscope. Tinkering around a 3D model of a mouse brain is definitely more ethical than experimenting on a real one — and thus, these capabilities of VR allow scientists to take on more daring research without offending public sensibilities.

Create Realistic Simulated Environments

Virtual reality has allowed researchers to create very realistic simulated environments to study brain function and behavior. One example is the FreemoVR, a system that takes inspiration from Star Trek’s concept of a holodeck. The FreemoVR aids in solving many limitations researchers currently face as they attempt to study brain behavior. Previously, VR techniques required the animal to be immobile or restrained during testing, as systems were not able to react to animal movements.

However, this is not the case with the FreemoVR system. The system includes a “behavioral arena” including walls and floors equipped with computer displays. These use game technology to recreate specific environments, permitting lab animals to behave naturally. Due to this, animals can move freely and explore the environment without any restrictions.

FreemoVR’s abilities have been tested through experiments involving mice, flies, and even zebrafish. In the zebrafish test, a tank of zebrafish was placed in the FreemoVR circular arena. Then, researchers projected images of a swarm of aliens from the Space Invaders video game onto the walls of the arena. The results showed that “the fish reacted as they would if the creatures were real – and even engaged in behavior to ‘join’ the swarm of aliens”.

Advancements in VR such as the FreemoVR can make way for endless possibilities in the study of animal behavior. Subsequently, this allows scientists to better understand human beings and further biotechnology research.

Encourage Study of the Science

As mentioned in a previous article on Our Planet, “Virtual and augmented reality is all set to become a huge part of the modern classrooms come 2050”. Indeed, VR is one of the best ways to disrupt the common notion that science is boring.

Consider the Danish startup Labster, founded by Mads Bonde. This ed-tech startup uses VR to make the study of biotechnology interactive and exciting. Labster is based on the concept of “Virtual Scenarios” – one such example being the CSI Lab Simulation. In this simulation, the principles of DNA analysis are explored through the story of a murder mystery. As stated by Bonde, “While investigating a virtual crime scene, students collect blood samples in hopes that the murderer has left traces of DNA. After sampling, the student accesses a virtual lab to perform DNA analysis”.

Labster’s virtual labs are being used all over the world – partner universities include Harvard, MIT, and Exeter in the U.K. The virtual labs allow students to study biotechnology in an innovative manner, without compromising on quality equipment. Universities are often hindered by the expensive cost of science education and equipment. VR in the form of virtual labs is one way to free universities from this limitation, making the study of science much more accessible to students.

These are just some of the ways in which VR is benefitting biotechnology practices. From making equipment more accessible to aiding in live experimentation, the field of biotechnology has a lot to gain from utilizing VR.

Frankie Wallace

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