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).
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
Through bioremediation processes, very useful for ecological recovery, the catabolic properties of microorganisms, fungi, plants and enzymes are used to restore contaminated ecosystems.
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.
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:
|1. What is biotechnology and how is it defined?
|2. What are some examples of medical biotechnology applications?
|3. How is biotechnology used in agriculture?
|4. What are some industrial applications of biotechnology?
|5. What are the potential ethical concerns related to biotechnology?