Biotech | A Complete Guide
The science of biotechnology has enormously improved the life of humans. From revolutionizing medical techniques, to helping the agricultural industries, biotechnology has kept up with global needs and demands. But coupled with its success, it keeps the potential for misuse, in the wrong hands biotechnology could be used for biological warfare.
In this article we will look at: 1) what is biotechnology?, 2) history of biotechnology, 3) types of biotechnology, 4) purpose behind the exploration of biotechnology, and 5) the biotech ecosystem.
WHAT IS BIOTECHNOLOGY?
The purpose of biotechnology is to employ biological processes for use in industries or other processes. The major function of biotechnology is accomplished through gene manipulation, this helps medicine, as it is used in making antibiotics, drugs and hormones. Also, it is used in increasing the efficiency of agriculture via increasing the crop yields or making the crops tougher.
Biotechnology is proving to be the future, but has helped mankind through a lot of the past. From the times of the Egyptians, biotech has been implemented. The Egyptians would use fermentation techniques to make their wine and a wide variety of breads. They even carried out breeding livestock to fulfill their society’s food requirements.
HISTORY OF BIOTECHNOLOGY
In the past, Columbus introduced corn to the Europeans, even though the crop was native to the Americas; European farmers altered the crop to suit Europe’s agricultural conditions. Similarly, the Spanish brought round potatoes, native to South America, but with time potatoes became a staple crop in many European nations.
Later discovered by Louis Pasteur was the process of pasteurization. The process, named after the scientist, involves killing of harmful microorganisms in products using heat. Currently used in numerous production techniques, the process was a huge step forward in transporting perishables such as milk.
Contributing to green biotech, Gregor Mendel showed the effects of plant cross-breeding. His experiments illustrated that plants did inherit certain genetic traits from the parent plants. His experiments resulted in showing that attributes of plants such as color or height were inherited through genes. Playing more on the genetic makeup of plants, expert Henry Wallace, cross bred different varieties of crops to manufacture HYV’s (High Yielding Varieties). This process was done by breeding different crops with favorable traits in order to improve seed and crop quality.
A major breakthrough for biotech was the discovery of the DNA structure. The discovery of the double helix structure meant that scientists could understand of what traits an organism will comprise. This finding later helped in lending DNA from one organism to another to cultivate the positive traits. This discovery helped in creating new drugs that would help organisms achieve what they previously could not, like produce insulin. The understanding of the DNA structure also helped in breeding crops that would be able to protect themselves against pest and diseases.
To look at an example of Red Biotech using DNA transfer, we have insulin. Herbert Boyer, using biotechnology was able to isolate out of DNA a gene for insulin.
Closer to the present, Biotech has transformed agriculture. The existence of new, high-yielding and durable crop varieties has ensured farmers get the returns off their land. And the modified varieties are more popular in the markets since they have a greater shelf life and taste better than the old varieties. The resistance to pests and insects also makes them a better choice for farmers who cannot afford pesticides and the increased durability means that the crops can take on relatively harsh weather conditions.
TYPES OF BIOTECHNOLOGY
Talking about the types of Biotech, we must discuss Bioinformatics. The idea behind Bioinformatics is to bring together computer technologies and biotech to help in better understanding living organisms and to better aid them in solving problems. The computer aspect of bioinformatics helps in collecting and recognizing extremely large and complex data. Because computers are now a part of most processes and techniques, they have become essential in understanding bioscience. It is through the advent of specialized software that break down specific DNA strands and comprehend their purpose. Bioinformatics helps for example in developing drugs, understanding specific diseases, and singling out the favorable traits of plants.
It is through bioinformatics that we can simulate adverse or favorable conditions to check their effect on the cell structure and activity. The software used is interdisciplinary, taking on engineering, maths, stats and of course computer science to help better understand the biological data. The primary use of bioinformatics is still to try and understand how biological organisms function, but aiding in modelling and simulating DNA structures is also a popular use of Bioinformatics.
Medical Biotechnology (Red Biotechnology) works towards developing new ways to better medical treatments and diagnostic procedures. A major push for Red Biotech was the discovery of the DNA structure, which in turn led to decoding the DNA and getting a better understanding of human genes. Since genes are the basic blocks of life, knowledge regarding them can help better understand how they are affected by stimulants. When a gene is identified as being responsible for certain bodily operations, it becomes easier to develop target medications with reduced side effects. This is the reason that Red Biotech is mainly genetics and protein research.
Using Red Biotech, scientists have discovered many new and effective approaches to deal with the common diseases, like heart problems, cancer, diabetes. These treatments or cures found using biotech are more effective and result in less side effects to the patient. Due to the success medicine is one of Biotech’s major areas of application. Currently, it is not only applied in discovering new medicines and treatments, but also in making them. Over 200 protein-based drugs are manufactured in Germany using bioreactors, which alters the gene structure of the cells to produce the required proteins.
Blue Biotech, which relates to the marine and aquatic environment, uses the biological resources either as source or target of their applications. The research has a low environmental impact and helps in numerous areas of science and technology. Blue biotech is used to find solutions to water pollution, figuring out the nutrition details of aquatic creatures, improve health management and understand gene transfer of animals through selective breeding.
Using blue biotech scientists have found single-celled organisms present in oceans across the world that eat oil. These organisms help to reduce the oil content of the seas, so that without them the oceans would be covered in a layer of oil. They may offer a solution to controlling or restricting oil spills. Also, a part of Blue Biotech scientists have examined a shark’s skin surface which was discovered to have less friction drag, this can be employed by shipbuilders to help them in turbulent waters. The gel from Mussels is also used as an effective adhesive for underwater machinery and equipment.
Coming to Green Biotechnologies, they encircle the agricultural side of biotech. It has been immensely popular and without it modern agriculture would not thrive as it does. The idea is to move from traditional farming techniques to ones that are more environment-friendly. The results of Green Biotech are the modified crops that offer a higher yield to farmers, better taste and are more durable against pests and other natural occurrences. Green Biotech holds its roots from millennia ago, when farmers used to cross breed desirable plants to develop a strain that was better in quality, had bigger, better tasting fruit, etc.
Before, farmers could only cross breed differing varieties using the plant’s aesthetics or taste, but now altering the gene structure to fit the farmer’s demand is faster and more accurate. As the demands for certain characteristics in plants are increasing, so are the ways to tackle the problems. It is now possible to target genes to modify them against specific harmful stimulants.
The final category of biotech is the Industrial Biotechnology (White Biotechnology). Used in almost every major industry, white biotech carries a wide spectrum of solutions and efficient techniques. By tapping into nature’s resource reserve, opportunities to develop environment-friendly and efficient industrial processes have greatly increased. From the development of perishable food stuffs to manufacturing durable household items, White Biotech is integral for industrial production.
The idea of using microorganisms in industrial processes is quite old; fermentation has been used to produce products since the nineteenth century. After fermentation, there was pasteurization that was used in industries in order to increase the durability of certain perishables.
Closer to the present, the need to protect natural resources for future generations have led to White biotech being used to figure out techniques that are less resource consuming. For example, industrial biotech is being used to find out ways to develop bioplastics. Also, White Biotech is helping is making renewable energy sources more efficient.
PURPOSE BEHIND THE EXPLORATION OF BIOTECHNOLOGY
To see why there needs to be more research using biotechnologies, we can see the benefits it leaves behind for the agricultural industry. The development of HYV’s (High Yielding Varieties) has led to crop yield and production increasing. Through Gene alteration, plants are now more protected; crops of corn, potato and cotton have been successfully transformed to sustain after insects attack them. Other than farming, biotech has increased production of cheese using a bacterium that acts as a catalyst. When demands for genetic alterations are fulfilled, the result is a better tasting, a fresh crop. Some major benefits to the agricultural industry have been in the form of reduced pollution as pesticides are hardly required. And the third world countries also benefit, since their agriculture based economies can now produce better crops and in greater quantity.
Biotechnology also has vast benefits in the field of medicine; using biotech cures have been discovered, treatments for illnesses improved and diagnostic criteria have been improved. Biopharmaceuticals use biotechnology for their production; they develop synthetic drugs without chemicals but using microorganisms. Usually, the drugs are manufactured using bioreactors. They keep the microorganisms under specified conditions and they in turn make the biopharmaceuticals. In the medical profession, gene therapy is also where biotech is used. Used for treating diseases like cancer and hepatitis, gene therapy refers to pushing the healthy cells in an organism’s body to either kill or replace the diseased ones. Apart from being used in treating patients, biotech is also used in gathering information about the patient; Pharmacogenomics is the process gathering genetic data from an individual. Genetic testing is used in the medical profession is any genetic diseases might be inherited by the child or the sex of the child.
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Although we have seen above the many benefits of biotechnology, it still has some drawbacks, and due to those drawbacks there are people who oppose the use of biotechnology. It was agreed in Agenda 21, in Rio de Janeiro that biotechnology is a developing knowledge-intensive field that holds many benefits. In that agreement, it was also established that countries will regulate biotechnology so that it does not fall into the wrong hands, because the potential for biotechnical warfare may be present. In order to take a precautionary approach, there were rules set for any transfer; use and handling of genetically modified organisms. Although during the talks, the level of mistrust among the nations led to many European nations rejecting biotechnology. Again because of the mistrust, African nations did not accept food aid in the form of genetically modified crops fearing it may be harmful.
The harmful or adverse effects that biotechnology could carry and how to make sure the harmful effects were reduced required risk assessments to take place. When carrying out risk assessments, there were two things that were taken into account, firstly, the consequences of a particular event and secondly the likelihood of such an event occurring.
Some of the harmful effects to the environment that could occur because of the use of genetically modified organisms are the fear of ‘super weeds’. It is believed that some genetically modified crops might cross-pollinate with some weeds to develop a strain of super weeds that will be harmful to other crops. Another fear for the environment is the effect the modified crops might have on the other crops. Scientists believe that if released to the environment, the genetically modified crops could have adverse effects on the non-targeted crops. Another con of biotechnology is that it may cause insects to develop immunity to insecticides when they adapt to survive. Many farmers are also concerned for the loss of biodiversity when genetically modified plants are introduced into the environment. When a durable strain of plant is present in the environment, it will slowly eliminate the weaker plants as they will have a less chance to survive.
Some health related issues that are caused due to altered plants are; that they might trigger allergic responses from people that regular crops and plants do not. Some opponents of biotechnology also talk about the bacteria that might develop antibiotic resistances; this would mean that to tackle bacteria newer medicines would have to be developed.
Biotech ecosystems refer to the collective actions of the major participants in the economy to boost biotechnology and its use. It was recent that biotech was not popular among the people, but starting recently investment in the biotech industry has skyrocketed. With biotech firms now trading on Wall Street, the change in perception has resulted from breakthroughs in fields of medicine and agriculture. But still Biotech firms are some of the riskiest investments in the market because it takes years of losing to the market due to research and development after which a breakthrough might happen.
The governments have also chimed in to help the growth of the biotech ecosystem. For example in the US, the FDA has begun to approve drugs discovered using biotech for rare diseases and mainly cancer.
The result of the collective work of investors, governments, and companies is an industry that can push forth solution to global problems that are simpler and more efficient.
To conclude, biotechnology is currently a major contributor to medicine, agriculture, and industry. It has increased in popularity over the years, because of its success in delivering what it promises. It has been helpful in major crisis situations, like helping in famine hit areas. It has also aided in finding cures for diseases previously untreated. It the fight to clean up our environment, biotechnology has helped in all forms, be it cleaning up oil spills, or reducing waste or taking out harmful elements from the air. Even though it has some negatives attached with it, they do not outweigh the benefits.
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