The following essay was a part of my freshmen year coursework for the Biotechnology-101. Written back in 2005.
Biotechnology is the third wave in biological science and represents such an interface of basic and applied sciences, where gradual and subtle transformation of science into technology can be witnessed. Biotechnology is defined as the application of scientific and engineering principals to the processing of material by biological agents to provide goods and services. Biotechnology comprises a number of technologies based upon increasing understanding of biology at the cellular and molecular level.
The Bible already provides numerous examples of biotechnology. Namely, it deals with the conversion of grapes to wine, of dough to bread and of milk to cheese. The oldest biotechnological processes are found in microbial fermentations, as born out by the Babylonian tablet dated circa 6000 B.C., explaining the preparation of beer. The Sumerians were able to brew as many as twenty types of beer in the third millennium B.C. In about 4000 B.C. leavened bread was produced with the aid of yeast. During Vedic period (5000-7000 B.C.) Aryans had been performing daily Agnihotra or Yajna. In Ayurved, production of ‘Asava’ and ‘Arista’ using different substrates and flowers of mahua (Madhuca indica) or dhataki (Wodfordia fructicosa) has been well characterized till today since Vedic period. One of the materials used in Yajna is animal fat (i.e. ghee) which is fermented product of milk. The term ‘biotechnology’ was described in a Bulletin of the Bureau of Biotechnology published in July, 1920 from the office of the same name in Leeds in Yorkshire. The articles in this bulletin described the varied roles of microbes in leather industry to pest control.
There are numerous sub-fields of biotechnology. They are:
- Red biotechnology is biotechnology applied to medical processes. Some examples are the designing of organisms to produce antibiotics, and the engineering of genetic cures to cure diseases through genomic manipulation.
- White biotechnology, also known as grey biotechnology, is biotechnology applied to industrial processes. An example is the designing of an organism to produce a useful chemical. White biotechnology tends to consume less in resources than traditional processes when used to produce industrial goods.
- Green biotechnology is biotechnology applied to agricultural processes. An example is the designing of an organism to grow under specific environmental conditions or in the presence (or absence) of certain agricultural chemicals. One hope is that green biotechnology might produce more environmentally friendly solutions than traditional industrial agriculture. An example of this is the engineering of a plant to express a pesticide, thereby eliminating the need for external application of pesticides. Whether or not green biotechnology products such as this are ultimately more environmentally friendly is a topic of considerable debate.
- The term blue biotechnology has also been used to describe the marine and aquatic applications of biotechnology, but its use is relatively rare.
Broadly biotechnology can be divided into two major branches:
- Non-gene biotechnology– deals with whole cell, tissues or even individual organisms
- Gene biotechnology– involves gene manipulation, cloning, etc.
Non-gene biotechnology is a more popular practice, and plant tissue culture, hybrid seed production, microbial fermentation, production of hybridoma antibodies or immunochemicals are wide spread biotechnology practices.
For centuries humans have used microorganisms to produce foods and drinks without understanding the microbial processes underlying their production. In recent years the understanding of the biosynthetic pathways and regulatory control mechanisms used by microorganisms for production of several metabolites has been increased by developing the knowledge of biochemistry of industrially important organisms. Notable biotechnologies for food processing include fermentation technology, enzyme technology and monoclonal antibody technology. Beneficial microbes participate in fermentation processes, producing many useful metabolites such as enzymes, organic acids, solvents, vitamins, amino acids, antibiotics, growth regulators, flavors and nutritious foods. Some leading food bioprocessing technologies are dairy processing, alcohol and beverage processing. Production of alcoholic beverages include: wine, beer, whiskey, rum, shake, etc. utilizing microorganisms like Clostridium acetobutylicum, Lecuonostoc mesenteroides, Aspergillus oryzae, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Rizopus sp., Mucor sp., etc. Biotechnologically produced organic acids like citric acid, acetic acid, gluconic acid, D-Lactic acid, fumaric acid, etc. also has very high market value.
The application of biotechnology can result in (a) new ways of producing existing products with the use of new inputs, and (b) new ways of producing new products. Examples of the former include the production of gasoline from ethanol which in turn is produced from sugar; the production of insulin using recombinant DNA technology; the production of hepatitis B vaccine using recombinant DNA technology and the extraction of copper using mineral leaching bacteria. The alternative inputs are oil for gasoline, porcine prancreases for insulin, human blood for hepatitis vaccine, and the conventional mining techniques for copper. Examples of the latter include possible medicinal substances which are produced in minute quantity in the human body and which cannot be synthesized such as insulin, interleukin or Tissue Plasminogen Activator (TPA).
A wide variety of microorganisms are now being employed as tools in biotechnology to produce useful products or services. Raw materials can be converted to useful finished products both by ordinary chemical processes and by biological means. Generally, the costs of chemical conversion are quite high as the reactions require high temperature or pressure. In contrast, biological alternatives, using microbes or cultured animal or plant cells, operate at physiologically normal conditions of temperature, pressure, pH, etc. During the next few decades biotechnology would have overtaken chemical technology, and many such chemicals which are today produced chemically would be made through biotechnology.
Enzyme technology is an area of considerable current interest and development. Enzymes are biological catalysts and have been used for many years as isolated agents particularly in food e.g. rennin, papain and invertase. These enzymes have increasingly replaced plants and animal enzymes; thus amylase from Bacillus and Aspergillus have substituted those of malted wheat and barley in brewing, baking and biscuit-making and also in the textile industry, etc. Today, enzyme technologies have four distinct areas of application: in cosmetics, therapy, the food and feed industry, and for diagnostic purposes. One very important recent application is the production of foodstuffs from non-traditional raw materials: for instance, the development of the sweetener, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), also called isoglucose. Another recent application is the use of phytase in animal feed.
Nowadays, interest in the traditional fermentation technology for food processing has greatly increased because of emphasis placed upon plant materials as human foods. Single-cell protein (SCP) is term generally accepted to mean the microbial cells (algae, bacteria, actinomycetes and fungi) grown and harvested for animal or human food. During World War II, when there were shortages in proteins and vitamins in the diet, the Germans produced yeasts and a mold (Geotrichum candidum) in some quantity for food. Research on SCP has been stimulated by a concern over the eventual food crisis or food shortages that will occur if the world’s population is not controlled. Many scientists believe that the use of microbial fermentations and the development of an industry to produce and supply SCP are possible solutions to meet a shortage of protein if and when the amount of protein produced or obtained by agriculture and fishing becomes insufficient.
The roots of molecular biology were established only after the British biophysicist Francis Crick and the American biochemist James Watson, in 1953, proposed the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule which is well known as the chemical bearer of genetic information of most of the organisms. We really began understanding and utilizing molecular biotechnology (or gene biotechnology) only after recombinant DNA technology was developed in 1970’s. Daniel Nathans (in 1971) of John Hopkins University utilized the restriction enzyme to split DNA of monkey tumor virus, Simian Virus (SV40). Recombinant DNA technology, often referred to as genetic engineering or gene manipulation, involves extraction of a particular gene of interest form one organism and then insertion of the gene into other organisms. Genetic manipulation may be defined as the extracellular (i.e. in vitro) creation of new forms of arrangements of DNA in such a way as to allow the incorporation or continued propagation of altered genetic condition in nature. Among the first scientist to attempt genetic manipulation was Paul Berg of Stanford University who in 1971 along with his co-workers opened the DNA molecule of SV40 and spliced it into a bacterial chromosome and constructed the first recombinant DNA molecule.
The genetic engineering techniques are useful tools for genetic research. They can help to gain in the structure, function and regulation of genes. They also help to prepare the physical maps of viral genome. Maps of several viruses have been made available like SV40, Polyoma virus and adenovirus. Another goal in genetic engineering is to design super bug which can degrade most of the major hydrocarbon components of petroleum. The different strains of Pseudomonas putida contain a plasmid which has genes coding for enzymes that digest a single family of hydrocarbons. By crossing the various strains of this bacterium, a super bug has been created. The multiplasmid bacterium is able to grow on a diet of crude oil. The super bug has potential for clearing up oil spills.
Biotechnology is widely used in pharmacy to create more efficient and less expensive drugs. Recombinant DNA technology is used for production of specific enzymes, which enhance the rate of production of particular range of antibodies in the organism. The hormones such as somatostatin, insulin and the human growth hormone can be synthesized easily and cheaply. The first human hormone to be synthesized by genetic engineering was somatostatin. Somatostatin is brain hormone originating from hypothalamus. It acts to inhabit the release of human growth hormone and insulin is related to treatment of diabetes, pancreatis and few other conditions. Genetech, a California based company, has produced human growth hormone (hGH) from genetically engineered bacteria. Human insulin or humulin is the first genetically engineered pharmaceutical product, developed by Eli Lilly and company in 1982. Bovine Somatotropin (BST) is produced for a large quantity of milk production in cows. Antibiotics are chemical substances produced by several microorganisms. Recombinant DNA technology has helped in increased production of antibiotics; for example, the rate of penicillin produced at present is about 150,000 unit/ml against about 10 unit/ml in 1950s. Antibiotics produced using such technology have very specific effects and cause fewer side effects. Currently, scientists are working on vaccines for fatal illnesses such as AIDS, hepatitis, malaria, flu, and even some forms of cancer. Interferon, an anti-viral protein, is prepared from the mammalian cells by recombinant DNA technology. By cloning cDNA to genes for human interferon, it has been found that there are large number of interferon differing in amino acid sequences and properties. A large number of interferon is prepared in yeast cells by fermentation process. Shrof expects that in the near future vaccines will come in more convenient ways “some will come in the form of mouthwash; others will be swallowed in time-release capsules, avoiding the need for boosters.” (Shrof 57)
One of the best known applications of genetic engineering is that of the creation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). There are potentially momentous biotechnological applications of GM, for example oral vaccines produced naturally in fruit, at very low cost. This represents, however, a spread of genetic modification to medical purposes and opens an ethical door to other uses of the technology to directly modify human genomes. A genetically modified food is a food product derived in whole or part from a genetically modified organism (GMO) such as a crop plant, animal or microbe such as yeast. Genetically modified foods have been available since the 1990s. The principal ingredients of GM foods currently available are derived from genetically modified soybean, maize and canola. Between 1996 and 2001, the total surface area of land cultivated with GMOs had increased by a factor of 30, from 17,000 km² (4.2 million acres) to 520,000 km² (128 million acres). The value for 2002 was 145 million acres (587,000 km²) and for 2003 was 167 million acres (676,000 km²). (Internet 6) Future applications of GMOs include bananas that produce human vaccines against infectious diseases such as Hepatitis B, fish that mature more quickly, fruit and nut trees that yield years earlier, and plants that produce new plastics with unique properties. Now scientists have transformed Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV) to infect host plants and produce immunizing proteins rather than debilitating leaf shrivel, turning greenhouse tobacco into a biofactory for plague vaccine.
Genetic diseases could be treated through the use of genetic engineering. Defective genes in an organism cause genetic disorders. If a defective gene could be identified and located in a particular group of cells – it could be replaced with a functional one. The transgenic cells are then planted into the organism, resulting in a cure of the disorder. Cloning is a relatively new sector of biotechnology, but it promises answers to very important problems related to surgery. Tissues and organs could be cloned for surgical purposes. If scientists could isolate stem cells and then direct their development, they would be able to create any kind of a tissue, organ or even a whole part of a body.
Another revolutionizing tool of biotechnology is DNA fingerprinting. DNA fingerprints are useful in several applications of human health care research, as well as in the justice system. DNA fingerprinting is used to diagnose inherited disorders in both prenatal and newborn babies in hospitals around the world. These disorders may include cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, Huntington’s disease, familial Alzheimer’s, sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, and many others. Early detection of such disorders enables the medical staff to prepare themselves and the parents for proper treatment of the child. In some programs, genetic counselors use DNA fingerprint information to help prospective parents understand the risk of having an affected child. DNA fingerprint information can also help in developing cures for inherited disorders. DNA fingerprints helps to link suspects to biological evidence – blood or semen stains, hair, or items of clothing – found at the scene of a crime and help in solving crime. Another important use of DNA fingerprints in the court system is to establish paternity in custody and child support litigation. The U.S. armed services have just begun a program to collect DNA fingerprints from all personnel for use later, in case they are needed to identify casualties or persons missing in action or for suspect verification.
Due to the revolutionary development of biotechnology during last couple of decades agriculture has drastically advanced. Sensational achievements were made in both plant cultivation and animal husbandry. Plants have been improved in four different ways:
- Enhanced potential for more vigorous growth and increasing yields
- Increased resistance to natural predators and pests, including insects and disease-causing microorganisms.
- Production of hybrids exhibiting a combination of superior traits derived from two different strains or even different species
- Selection of genetic variants with desirable qualities such as increased protein value, increased content of limiting amino acids, which are essential in the human diet, or smaller plant size, reducing vulnerability to adverse weather condition.
Another important area of biotechnology is improvement of livestock. Improvement in disease control, efficiency of reproduction, yields of livestock products i.e. meat, milk, wool, eggs, composition of livestock products i.e. leaner meat, feed value of low quality feeds i.e. straw; are some of the applications of biotechnology.
One of the major scientific revolutions of the twentieth century was the breaking of the genetic code and the development of tools that enable scientists to probe the molecules of life with incredible precision. Now, in the twenty-first century, these developments in biology are being married with the use of ever-increasing computer power to help us face the challenges that the new century brings. Bioinformatics is the name given to the new discipline that has emerged at the interface of biology and computing. Huge amount of genetic data (DNA, RNA, amino acid and protein sequences) of various organisms, form bacteria to humans, being generated worldwide is stored in a computer database. Specialized software programs are used to find, visualize, and analyze the information, and most importantly, communicate it to other people. Various computer tools are used to predict protein structure which is a valuable information for development of vaccines, diagnostic tools as well as more effective drugs. Bioinformatics can help in easy and early detection of various diseases like cancer, diabetes and many more with the help of microarray chips (microarrays are miniature arrays of gene fragments attached to glass slides). Bioinformatics also helps scientists to construct phylogenetic tree based on molecular biology and ultimately contribute in the study of evolution. Computer simulations model such things as population dynamics, or calculate the cumulative genetic health of a breeding pool (in agriculture) or endangered population (in conservation). One very exciting potential of this field is that entire DNA sequences or genomes of endangered species can be preserved.
Biotechnology has a promising future. In future biotechnology will be accredited for some revolutionary technology. Recent advances in bioenergy, bioremediation, synthetic biology, DNA computers, virtual cell, genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics and bio-nanotechnology have made biotechnology even more powerful. Recent discovery of conduction of electricity by DNA and its behavior as a superconductor has opened a new realm in modern science. In future biotechnology will have profound impact in world economy. Biotechnology is a golden tool to solve some of the key global problems like global epidemic, fatal diseases, global warming, rising petroleum fuel crisis and above all poverty.
For all the positive effects of biotechnology there are some possible side effects. Nobody knows what ecological hazards could be caused by transgenic organisms. Some even speculate that some transgenic organisms could fall into wrong hands to develop bioweapons. The opposition of genetic engineering says that – the science is very young and needs a lot more research.
The path from a test tube to the field is not a straight highway. Both intellectual and financial resources should be realized before new discoveries pave their way to industrial applications. In conclusion, biotechnology has also proved to be extremely productive and innovative and 21st century should be the century of biotechnology.
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