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Biotechnology and Its Applications

Biotechnology is the field that exploits living organisms to make technological advances in various fields for the sustainable development of mankind.

The European federation of biotechnology defines it as “The integration of natural science and organisms, cells, parts thereof and molecular analogues for products and services”.

Biotechnology is the use of an organism, or a component of an organism or other biological system, to make a product or process for a specific use

It can include both cutting-edge laboratory techniques and traditional agricultural and culinary techniques that have been practiced for hundreds of years.

Brewing and baking bread are examples of processes that fall within the concept of biotechnology (use of yeast (= living organism) to produce the desired product).

  • Such traditional processes usually utilize the living organisms in their natural form (or further developed by breeding), while the more modern form of biotechnology will generally involve a more advanced modification of the biological system or organism.

With the development of genetic engineering in the 1970s, research in biotechnology (and other related areas such as medicine, biology etc.) developed rapidly because of the new possibility to make changes in the organisms’ genetic material (DNA). Biotechnology deals with industrial scale production of biopharmaceuticals and biologicals using genetically modified microbes, fungi, plants and animals. The applications of biotechnology include therapeutics, diagnostics, genetically modified crops for agriculture, processed food, bioremediation, waste treatment, and energy production.

Beer brewing: In beer brewing, tiny fungi (yeasts) are introduced into a solution of malted barley sugar, which they busily metabolize through a process called fermentation. The byproduct of the fermentation is the alcohol that’s found in beer. Here, we see an organism – the yeast – being used to make a product for human consumption.

Penicillin: The antibiotic penicillin is generated by certain molds. To make small amounts of penicillin for use in early clinical trials, researchers had to grow up to 500 liters of “mold juice” a week. Here, an organism (mold) was used to make a product for human use – in this case, an antibiotic to treat bacterial infections. 

IVF, or in vitro fertilization, is a technique used to help a woman get pregnant. It is when a human egg is fertilised with sperm in a laboratory. IVF is used to treat infertility and some genetic problems.

Gene therapy: Gene therapy is an emerging technique used to treat genetic disorders that are caused by a nonfunctional gene. It works by delivering the “missing” gene’s DNA to the cells of the body.

  • In gene therapy, biological components from different sources (a gene from humans, a plasmid originally from bacteria) are combined to make a new product.

Tissue culture, a method of biological research in which fragments of tissue from an animal or plant are transferred to an artificial environment in which they can continue to survive and function.

Biotechnology has additional applications in areas such as food production and the remediation (cleanup) of environmental pollution.

Biotechnological innovations are already part of our daily lives and we find them in pharmacies and supermarkets, among many other places. In addition, in recent months biotechnology has become one of the spearheads in the fight against the COVID-19 global pandemic, since it helps to decipher the virus' genome and understand how the our body's defence mechanism works against infectious agents.

Biotechnology will therefore play a crucial role in the society of the future in preventing and containing potential pathogens. But this is just one of its many applications...

Below, we review some of the most relevant in different fields:

Medicine

The development of insulin, the growth hormone, molecular identity and diagnostics, gene therapies and vaccines such as hepatitis B are some of the milestones of biotechnology and its alliance with genetic engineering.

Industry

The revolution of the new smart materials hand-in-hand with biotechnology has only just begun. Soon we could have self-healing concrete, plants that change colour when they detect an explosive, clothing and footwear made with synthetic spider web, etc.

Food

In addition to the genetically modified foods mentioned above, thanks to biotechnology products such as WEMA have been created, a type of crop resistant to droughts and certain insects that may prove essential in fighting hunger in Africa.

Environment

Through bioremediation processes, very useful for ecological recovery, the catabolic properties of microorganisms, fungi, plants and enzymes are used to restore contaminated ecosystems.

Types of Biotechnology

Like the stripes of the rainbow, the different biotechnology applications are grouped into seven colours or research and development areas. In this section, we highlight the most relevant of each of them.

  • Red biotechnology. This is the health branch and responsible, according to the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), for the development of more than 250 vaccines and medications such as antibiotics, regenerative therapies and the production of artificial organs.
  • Green biotechnology. It is used by more than 13 million farmers worldwide to fight pests and nourish crops and strengthen them against microorganisms and extreme weather events, such as droughts and frosts.
  • White biotechnology. The industrial branch works to improve manufacturing processes, the development of biofuels and other technologies to make industry more efficient and sustainable.
  • Yellow biotechnology. This branch is focused on food production and, for example, it carries out research to reduce the levels of saturated fats in cooking oils.
  • Blue biotechnology. This exploits marine resources to obtain aquaculture, cosmetics and health care products. In addition, it is the branch most widely used to obtain biofuels from certain microalgae.
  • Grey biotechnology. Its purpose is the conservation and restoration of contaminated natural ecosystems through, as mentioned above, bioremediation processes.
  • Gold biotechnology. Also known as bioinformatics it is responsible for obtaining, storing, analysing and separating biological information, especially that related to DNA and amino acid sequences.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Biotechnology

The benefits of biotechnology are tangible, but at the same time some warn of its possible adverse effects on the environment, health and ethics.
The advantages of BIO are as follows:

  • It reduces CO2 emissions by 52 %, optimises the use of water and reduces waste and chemical processes thanks to techniques such as recombinant DNA.
  • It improves medical diagnosis, reduces infection rates, minimises the side effects of medications and favours progress in developing countries.
  • It favours healthy and sustainable agriculture — it provides more nutritious, toxin and allergen-free food — — it limits the use of pesticides and chemicals.
The document Applications of Biotechnology | Science & Technology for UPSC CSE is a part of the UPSC Course Science & Technology for UPSC CSE.
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FAQs on Applications of Biotechnology - Science & Technology for UPSC CSE

1. What is biotechnology and how is it defined?
Biotechnology is the use of biological processes, organisms, or systems to develop or manufacture products or technologies that improve our lives. It involves the manipulation of living organisms or their components to produce useful products or solve practical problems. Biotechnology can be broadly categorized into three main areas: medical, agricultural, and industrial biotechnology.
2. What are some examples of medical biotechnology applications?
Medical biotechnology has numerous applications that have revolutionized healthcare. Some examples include the development of vaccines, gene therapy, production of therapeutic proteins like insulin, monoclonal antibodies for cancer treatment, and genetic testing for disease diagnosis. These advancements have greatly improved disease prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.
3. How is biotechnology used in agriculture?
Biotechnology has transformed agriculture by improving crop yield, disease resistance, and nutritional content. One application is the genetic modification of plants to enhance traits such as pest resistance, drought tolerance, and nutritional value. Biotechnology also plays a role in the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which have been engineered to enhance crop productivity and reduce the need for chemical pesticides.
4. What are some industrial applications of biotechnology?
Biotechnology has diverse industrial applications. One example is the use of enzymes in various industrial processes, such as the production of biofuels, detergents, and textiles. Biotechnology is also used in the production of bioplastics, which are derived from renewable resources and offer a more sustainable alternative to traditional plastics. Additionally, biotechnology is utilized in the development of bioremediation techniques to clean up environmental pollutants.
5. What are the potential ethical concerns related to biotechnology?
While biotechnology presents numerous benefits, it also raises ethical concerns. Some of these include the safety of genetically modified organisms and their potential impact on ecosystems, the ownership of genetically modified organisms or patented genes, and the potential for biotechnology to widen the gap between developed and developing countries in terms of access to resources and technologies. Additionally, there are debates surrounding the ethical implications of genetic testing and gene editing technologies. These concerns highlight the need for careful regulation and ethical considerations in the field of biotechnology.
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