What is Biotechnology?
Biotechnology can fall within a line as simple as using yeast in the baking of bread or it can be as complex as producing faster growing and sweeter apples by modifying their genetic components. In essence, it is a technology that utilizes biological systems, living organisms, or parts of living organisms to develop or enhance different products. It is a technology that harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes to develop other technologies and products that help improve lives, health, and economy all over the globe. Biotech uses biological processes such as fermentation and harnesses biocatalysts such as enzymes, yeast, and other microbes to become microscopic manufacturing plants.
Importance Of Biotechnology
Biotech improves crop yield and encourages sustainable farming practices. It also helps improve the economy, environment, and prevents global warming. Biotech is helping to make the world better by:
- Designing and organizing the steps in chemical manufacturing processes by 80% or more.
- Modifying and developing foods that are free of allergens and toxins such as mycotoxin.
- Reducing the temperature for cleaning clothes, in turn, saving more money yearly.
- Improving the efficiency of manufacturing processes to save 50% or more on the cost of operation.
- Reducing the need for humans to use and rely on petrochemicals.
- Using fewer inputs to generate even higher crop yields.
- Tapping into the full potential of traditional biomass waste products.
- Using biofuels to cut down greenhouse gas emissions by more than 52%.
- Decreasing human water usage and generation of waste.
- Lowering the volume of agricultural chemicals required by crops thereby limiting the release of such chemical products into the environment.
- Improving food and crop oil content to help improve cardiovascular health.
- Producing biotechnology crops that need fewer pesticides which allows farmers to reduce tilling the farmland.
- Developing crops with enhanced nutrition profiles thereby increasing nutrient composition in the crops.
Presently, more than 13.3 million farmers use biotechnology to increase crop yields, prevent damage from pests without the need for harmful chemicals, and reduce the impact of farming on the environment. More than 250 biotechnology health care products and vaccines are available to patients, many of these vaccines are for diseases that used to be untreatable. Also, more than 50 biorefineries and research labs are being built across North America to test and refine technologies to produce biofuels and chemicals from renewable biomass, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent global warming.
Recent biotechnological advancements are helping us prepare for and meet the world’s most pressing needs.
Modern biotechnology makes room for even more research that provides groundbreaking technology and develops products that help combat debilitating and rare diseases, reduce our carbon footprint on the environment, feed the hungry, reduces energy consumption, prevents the need for chemical waste and spillage and has safer, cleaner and more effective industrial manufacturing processes.
For many years, the biotechnology industry was overrun by recombinant genetic engineering. This technique consists of gene splicing for a useful protein. In the process of splicing a gene into a production cell, new organisms are created.
In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty, resolved that “a live human-made microorganism is patentable subject matter” which allowed the production for commercial use of products like insulin, recombinant versions of growth hormone, clotting factors, proteins for stimulating the production of red and white blood cells, interferons, clot-dissolving agents and so on.
Initially, the main achievement of biotechnology was the ability to produce naturally occurring therapeutic molecules in quantities larger than what could be derived from conventional sources such as plasma, animal organs, and human cadavers. They were also able to develop proteins less likely to be contaminated with pathogens or cause allergic reactions.
Today, biotechnology researchers aim to determine the root cause of diseases at the molecular level and intervene at that point. This can sometimes mean developing therapeutic proteins that make up for the body’s own protein supply or cover-up for genetic anomalies. The industry has also extended its research aspects like genomics; the branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes. And proteomics; the study of proteomes and their functions.
Biotechnology has also advanced into bioinformatics; the collection, classification, storage, and analysis of biochemical and biological information using computers especially as applied to molecular genetics and genomics, regenerative medicine; the process of replacing or "regenerating" human cells, tissues or organs to restore or establish normal function, and nanotechnology; the branch of technology that deals with dimensions and tolerances of less than 100 nanometers, especially the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules. Companies, researchers, and academic laboratories integrate these disparate technologies in an attempt to analyze downward into molecules and also to synthesize upward from molecular biology toward chemical pathways, tissues, and organs.
In addition to being used in health care, biotechnology has proved helpful in refining industrial processes through the discovery and production of biological enzymes that spark chemical reactions (catalysts); for environmental cleanup, with enzymes that digest contaminants into harmless chemicals and then die after consuming the available “food supply”; and in agricultural production through genetic engineering.
Risks Of Biotechnology
As much as this field has made a lot of progress in improving human lives and making the world a better place, it also is presumed to carry more risk than any other scientific field. Microbes in biology are tiny and difficult to detect, so they are able to do more harm.
Another cause for worry is the fact that engineered cells can divide on their own and spread which can have extreme and dangerous consequences. Sometimes, biotechnology can be intentionally used to wreak havoc on unsuspecting populations. For instance, genetically modified viruses released to large populations.
In Australia in 1930s cane beetles were destroying the sugarcane crops and the farmers were worried. So they proposed a solution to import a natural predator, the cane toad which they assumed would help get rid of the cane beetles. This didn’t go according to plan because the cane toad ended up feeding on most of the local crops, but didn’t get rid of the cane beetles.
Agricultural applications of biotechnology have come under a lot of scrutiny by a number of NGOs. Most of whom have different reasons for being against it, from disapproval of genetically modified food to processing certain foods and so on. For instance, while scientists have found that GMOs in foods are safe for consumption, some critics still insist that there might be long-term effects that have not been discovered yet.
In 2014, the Center for Disease Control came under scrutiny due to repeated errors that led to scientists being exposed to viruses like Anthrax and Ebola. Some researchers have come to face a lot of backlash for investigating viruses in a bid to understand how they affect the human populace and ways to develop a cure. Most of this backlash stem from the fact that such research can sometimes go awry and expose humans to these viruses. For instance, in 2011, A professor in the Netherlands got a lot of criticism for engineering a deadly version of the flu virus.
In the case of Mosquitoes, scientists working on gene drives have performed risk assessments and equipped them with safeguards to make sure the trials are as safe as possible. But, since a man-made gene drive has never been tested in the wild, it’s impossible to know for certain the impact that it could have on the environment. Additionally, there is a small possibility that the gene drive could mutate once released in the wild, spreading genes that researchers never planned for. Even armed with strategies to reverse a rogue gene drive, scientists may find gene drives difficult to control once they spread outside the lab.
When scientists were looking for a cure for HIV, they found that some individuals were resistant because they had mutated a protein that serves as the landing pad for HIV on the surface of blood cells. Because these patients were apparently healthy in the absence of the protein, researchers decided that deleting its gene in the cells of infected patients could be a permanent way to cure HIV and AIDS. With the arrival of a new tool called CRISPR or Cas9 which was a set of DNA scissors that could perform a simple gene surgery, researchers went wild with the possibility of curing not only HIV and AIDS but also other genetic diseases. Human trials, however, have produced troubling results, with mutations showing up in parts of the genome that shouldn’t have been targeted for DNA changes, making patients sicker instead of curing them.
While disease outbreaks in the world so far have been of natural origin, we cannot be certain that future outbreaks of diseases will not be purposely created or mutated. The advancement of biotechnology makes the weaponization of diseases and poisons easy to create and difficult to detect or control. Anyone with the technical know-how can create a designer virus specifically targeted at any individual without detection. This makes for a very scary world with little or no means of control.
Developed nations, and even impoverished ones, have the resources and know-how to produce bioweapons. North Korea, for instance, is rumored to have in store, biological samples of anthrax, plague, smallpox, typhoid, yellow fever, and much more in case of an attack. It is, therefore, safe to assume that other countries and even terrorists could also have samples of these diseases weaponized. Afterall there have been cases where viruses have been used as weapons to target individuals.
Advanced scientific studies, however, may allow researchers to find solutions to biotechnology threats as fast as they arise. For instance, less than 5 months after the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus a public health emergency, researchers got approval to enroll patients in trials for a DNA vaccine. But this should not take away from the fact that the threat of weaponizing biotechnology is real and should be taken very seriously.