2.6. Biotechnology

Biotechnology (sometimes shortened to “biotech“) is generally accepted as the use of living systems and organisms to develop or make useful products. For thousands of years, humankind has used biotechnology in agriculture, food production and medicine. The term itself is largely believed to have been coined in 1919 by Hungarian engineer Karl Ereky. In the late 20th and early 21st century, biotechnology has expanded to include new and diverse sciences such as genomics, recombinant gene technologies, applied immunology, and development of pharmaceutical therapies and diganostic tests.

Genetic engineering, also called genetic modification, is the direct manipulation of an organism’s genome using biotechnology. New DNA may be inserted in the host genome by first isolating and copying the genetic material of interest using molecular cloning methods to generate a DNA sequence, or by synthesizing the DNA, and then inserting this construct into the host organism. Genes may be removed, or “knocked out”, using a nuclease. Gene targeting is a different technique that uses homologous recombination to change an endogenous gene, and can be used to delete a gene, remove exons, add a gene, or introduce point mutations.

An organism that is generated through genetic engineering is considered to be a genetically modified organism (GMO). The first GMOs were bacteria in 1973; GM mice were generated in 1974. Insulin-producing bacteria were commercialized in 1982 and genetically modified food has been sold since 1994.

Genetic engineering techniques have been applied in numerous fields including research, agriculture, industrial biotechnology, and medicine. Enzymes used in laundry detergent and medicines such as insulin and human growth hormone are now manufactured in GM cells, experimental GM cell lines and GM animals such as mice or zebrafish are being used for research purposes, and genetically modified crops have been commercialized.

Applications

Biotechnology has applications in four major industrial areas, including health care (medical), crop production and agriculture, non food (industrial) uses of crops and other products (e.g.biodegradable plastics, vegetable oil, biofuels), and environmental uses.

For example, one application of biotechnology is the directed use of organisms for the manufacture of organic products (examples include beer and milk products). Another example is using naturally present bacteria by the mining industry in bioleaching. Biotechnology is also used to recycle, treat waste, cleanup sites contaminated by industrial activities (bioremediation), and also to produce biological weapons.

A series of derived terms have been coined to identify several branches of biotechnology; for example:

  • Blue biotechnology is a term that has been used to describe the marine and aquatic applications of biotechnology, but its use is relatively rare.
  • Green biotechnology is biotechnology applied to agricultural processes. An example would be the selection and domestication of plants via micropropagation. Another example is the designing of transgenic plants to grow under specific environments in the presence (or absence) of 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 ending the need of external application of pesticides. An example of this would be Bt corn. Whether or not green biotechnology products such as this are ultimately more environmentally friendly is a topic of considerable debate.
  • Red biotechnology is applied to medical processes. Some examples are the designing of organisms to produce antibiotics, and the engineering of genetic cures through genetic manipulation.
  • White biotechnology, also known as industrial biotechnology, is biotechnology applied to industrial processes. An example is the designing of an organism to produce a useful chemical. Another example is the using of enzymes as industrial catalysts to either produce valuable chemicals or destroy hazardous/polluting chemicals. White biotechnology tends to consume less in resources than traditional processes used to produce industrial goods.

The investment and economic output of all of these types of applied biotechnologies is termed as bioeconomy.

Cloning

Cloning involves the removal of the nucleus from one cell and its placement in an unfertilized egg cell whose nucleus has either been deactivated or removed.

There are two types of cloning:

  1. Reproductive cloning. After a few divisions, the egg cell is placed into a uterus where it is allowed to develop into a fetus that is genetically identical to the donor of the original nucleus.
  2. Therapeutic cloning. The egg is placed into a Petri dish where it develops into embryonic stem cells, which have shown potentials for treating several ailments.

In February 1997, cloning became the focus of media attention when Ian Wilmut and his colleagues at the Roslin Institute announced the successful cloning of a sheep, named Dolly, from the mammary glands of an adult female. The cloning of Dolly made it apparent to many that the techniques used to produce her could someday be used to clone human beings. This stirred a lot of controversy because of its ethical implications.

cloning process

Agriculture aplicattions

  • Crop yield
  • Reduced vulnerability of crops to environmental stresses
  • Increased nutritional qualities
  • Improved taste, texture or appearance of food
  • Reduced dependence on fertilizers, pesticides and other agrochemicals
  • Production of novel substances in crop plants

Animal biotechnology

In animals, biotechnology techniques are being used to improve genetics and for pharmaceutical or industrial applications. Molecular biology techniques can help drive breeding programs by directing selection of superior animals. Animal cloning, through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), allows for genetic replication of selected animals. Genetic engineering, using recombinant DNA, alters the genetic makeup of the animal for selected purposes, including producing therapeutic proteins in cows and goats. There is a genetically altered salmon with an increased growth rate being considered for FDA approval.

Risks of Genetic Engineering

  • No such experiencie of the potential impact on our health of the consumer products.
  • Handling of other living things, raising ethical questions
  • Monopolization of information with the intervention of chemical and pharmaceutical multinationals that invest huge amounts of money in the hope of higher returns
  • Exploitation of the third world but in return they reach the benefits of this technology XXI century
  • Danger of viruses and bacterial pathogens manipulate living creating uncontrolled that can affect our own species.

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