Biotechnology is a huge part of our lives even if we don’t realize it.
By creating a connection between biology and technology, many useful products and processes are created by scientists to make our lives easier, safer, and healthier.
What, exactly, is biotechnology?
In the simplest terms, the word biotechnology is taken from three Greek words: “bios,” meaning life, “technos” meaning technology, and “logos,” meaning thinking.
Biotechnology is a field of biology in which living organisms are used to produce or develop products, such as medicines like antibiotics, and biotechnology is primarily used in food science, medicine, and agriculture.
With that in mind, let’s look at the four main types of biotechnology. We’ll also explore the exciting technological advancements that biotechnology is contributing to in order to make our world a healthier place.
The Four Types Of Biotechnology
The four types of biotechnology are:
- Medical Biotechnology
- Agricultural Biotechnology
- Industrial Biotechnology
- Environmental Biotechnology
Let’s explore them in greater detail!
In medical biotechnology, the use of cell materials is seen as a way to encourage better human health, such as when it comes to finding cures for diseases.
Medical biotechnology involves various tasks, such as understanding human cell biology and pathogens with the aim of producing pharmaceutical drugs to fight and even prevent diseases.
The study of DNA is a key component in medical biotechnology as it’s important for the manipulation of cells in order to increase their beneficial qualities.
There are many great examples of medical biotechnology, such as vaccines and antibiotics.
Vaccines are chemicals that encourage the body’s immune system to fight pathogens. They make use of weakened versions of the pathogens that are inserted into the body.
The body fights the pathogens and its cells “remember” the disease so that when the person is exposed to the full-strength disease in reality, his or her cells will remember it and fight it. That’s basically how vaccines work.
When it comes to antibiotics, it’s common for plants to be used to create these medicines that have a healing effect on various human diseases and health conditions. In fact, some plants are grown and then genetically engineered so that they can produce antibodies.
Antibiotics work by stopping the growth of bacteria or killing bacteria, and they are classified according to what purpose they have. Bactericidal agents kill bacteria while bacteriostatic agents slow down the growth of bacteria.
In this branch of biotechnology, scientists use genetically modified plants to combat various problems when it comes to growing food, such as if there’s an infestation of pests that’s attacking crops.
Growing these genetically modified crops can therefore increase crop yields and ensure that plants can grow in spite of the obstacles they face, whether that be pests or even extreme temperatures.
The development of crops that repel pests is beneficial because it means that they don’t have to be treated with pesticides, which can be both costly and is harmful for the environment.
The use of a fungus called Bacillus thuringiensis is helpful in strengthening crops because it produces a protein that repels pests.
Its genes can be transferred to crops to protect them against pests. This is the perfect example of how biology and technology can be used to provide solutions to problems in agriculture.
The third type of biotechnology, industrial biotechnology, involves using biotechnology for industrial purposes. It’s focused on working with nature to improve manufacturing processes.
An example of industrial biotechnology is the use of enzymes and microorganisms to create products which improve the efficiency of various industrial processes, such as making paper and textiles.
Another example of industrial biotechnology is fermentation. When the sugar of a crop is fermented to become acid, this can be used to produce chemical raw materials for industrial processes.
There are many industrial sectors that benefit from industrial biotechnology, such as the pharmaceutical, textile, energy, and human and animal nutrition sectors.
Finally, environmental biotechnology is the use of technology to improve the quality of the environment. Examples include the use of technology for waste treatment and the prevention of pollution.
Environmental biotechnology can therefore detect, prevent, and find ways to eliminate environmental pollutants, such as natural solutions to mop up oil spills and the use of bacteria to break down plastic that pollutes the earth.
Other Exciting Biotechnology Examples
There are tons of examples of biotechnology, with many being exciting advancements that have the potential to improve our lives and wellbeing. Let’s take a look at some common and interesting examples of biotechnology.
DNA profiling, or genetic fingerprinting, is the method of isolating and identifying variable elements in the base-pair sequence of one’s DNA, as Britannica explains. Put in a simpler way, it makes it possible to determine relationships between people by comparing their DNA.
DNA profiling is used for various purposes. It can be used in forensics, where DNA samples at a crime scene can be compared with those of suspects.
It’s much more effective than blood-grouping tests because any tissue that has cells can be used as a sample. Another example of how DNA profiling is used is in paternity tests.
The use of biotechnology in insulin has been a massive medical development. It basically refers to using synthetic human insulin that results from DNA technology. Synthetic insulin enables diabetics to regulate their blood sugar levels. Here’s how it’s made:
Human insulin is extracted from cells of the pancreas and then a gene that produces insulin is isolated. Plasmid DNA is taken from bacteria and cut with an enzyme. Plasmid DNA can be defined as a small unit of DNA that replicates within a cell independently of chromosomal DNA.
It’s most commonly found in bacteria. The human insulin-producing gene is then inserted into the bacteria vector (or vehicle). This produces the artificial DNA of a gene that produces insulin.
This DNA is then put into a bacterial cell to form the artificial bacterium. The bacteria multiply to create human insulin that can be extracted and bottled for people with diabetes to use.
Genetically Modified (GM) Crops
We hear quite a lot about genetically modified crops, but what are they, really?
GM crops are a type of agricultural biotechnology. They have DNA that has been modified with genetic engineering to enable the crops to have new traits that they didn’t naturally own.
For example, pest-resistant traits that ensure crops can still grow and thrive despite the presence of pests or herbicide-resistant traits that enable the crops to be unaffected by herbicides. In the future, GM crops will also be able to have more nutritional value and be more tolerant of extreme temperatures.
Now, you might be wondering exactly how biotechnology modifies crops. Two common methods are:
- The use of a “gene gun.” This is when microscopic pieces of tungsten or gold are coated with the transgene (or transferred gene) fragment and then shot into plant tissues or cells.
- The use of bacteria. This is when a soil bacterium called agrobacterium tumefaciens is used. It transfers some of its own DNA into plants. The plant and bacterial cells grow together in a petri dish so that the genes can be transferred from the bacteria into the plants.
Biological Pest Control
Biological control is basically the practice of controlling pests such as weeds, insects, and plant diseases, by making use of other organisms. It works by making use of predators, parasites, and pathogens.
One pest control method of controlling pests involves using transgenic plants that have defence molecules.
Since 1996, biotech crops have become commercialized and this has helped to significantly decrease the amount of chemical fertilizers that are required while also increasing crop yields.
Biotech crops also help to find solutions to the problem of weeds without the dangers associated with them. By growing crops, such as soybean and cotton, with the use of reduced-risk herbicides that disintegrate easier in soil and don’t pose a toxic threat to humans or the environment, this ensures greater safety.
In addition to the above, it’s also important to know that the tools used in agricultural biotechnology have helped to provide scientists with lots of information about living organisms.
An example is how scientists have been able to identify and study the genetic structure of listeria and campylobacter bacteria strains, which can cause food-borne illnesses in humans.
By learning this genetic information, scientists can help to improve the safety of our food, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports.
Biofuels are fuels that are made from organic material, known as biomass, such as plant materials and animal waste.
Biomass can be converted into liquid fuels to meet the fuel requirements for transportation. Today, the most common biofuels that are used are biodiesel and ethanol.
How biofuels are made is via chemical reactions such as heat and fermentation. These processes help to break down sugars, starches, and other molecules that exist in plants. What is left from the process is then refined so that a fuel that vehicles can use is produced.
Interestingly, biomethane – a renewable natural gas – can be used for more than just transportation: it could help to produce electricity and heat. By capturing this gas from various sources, such as landfills or wastewater, and then refining it, this could prove highly useful to us, as National Geographic reports.
Gene therapy is basically the process of putting genes into a person’s cells and tissues to treat disease. This technology is still in early stages, but gene therapy has already been used.
Most gene therapy studies feature a functioning gene that’s put into the genome to replace a disease-causing gene. A carrier, known as a vector, is used to send the gene into the patient’s cells. Interestingly, viruses are common vectors once they are genetically modified to carry human DNA.
Gene therapy is a promising type of treatment for various illnesses, such as cancer, but it’s a risky process that is still being studied to ensure its effectiveness without compromising on safety.
Waste Treatment Plants
Biotechnology can help to improve how our waste is treated. There are various methods in which it can do this, so let’s outline them.
An activated sludge waste treatment tank has four components: a settling tank, an aeration tank, a return sludge pump, and a system involved with introducing oxygen into the aeration tank, as Biotecharticles reports.
How it works is that waste water enters the aeration tank where it gets mixed with microbes. These microbes metabolize the organic pollutants that are present in the waste water.
Then, solids are separated from the liquid in the water and removed. It’s the growth of microorganisms that helps to encourage the metabolism and removal of organic matter from the liquid, as the African Journal Of Biotechnology explains.
This interesting wastewater treatment makes use of the idea that settled wastewater which passes over rock surfaces encourages slime to grow and this purifies the water.
Trickling filters are used to treat industrial and domestic waste, and they consist of a rotating distribution arm that spreads liquid wastewater over a bed of rocks or synthetic materials. A layer of slime then consumes this waste and the organisms decompose the solids in the wastewater.
This process produces more organisms and waste which either form part of the slime or go back into the wastewater.
The slime can consist of bacteria, algae, worms, snails, insect larvae, or fungi. The accumulation of slime is collected in the filter along with treated wastewater. It then moves into the second tank where it is eliminated. Pretty amazing, huh?
What Are The Ethical Concerns Of Biotechnology?
There are many ethical concerns associated with biotechnology.
These include the potential to use biotechnology for ecological or human harm as well as the idea that our use of technology is interfering with nature. Let’s take a deeper look at the ethical concerns of biotechnology when it comes to environmental concerns.
The Ethical Issues Of Transgenes
In agricultural biotechnology, one of the ethical concerns is that transgenes (transferred genes) could accidentally spread to other organisms. When a crop grows, bacteria can take up genes in a process known as transformation.
This can cause genes to be passed to different types of plants, but it’s difficult to detect. This process could potentially harm other plants and crops.
For example, a gene for a natural insecticide could help corn to grow healthier, but it could result in a wild plant becoming a forest weed, as Encyclopedia reports. Therefore, caution is necessary.
GM Crops Are Controversial
It’s been found that genetically modified crops have resulted in the production of superweeds and superbugs that require the use of heavily-toxic poison to kill off, which is bad for the environment.
n addition, since over 80 percent of GM crops in the world are engineered for greater herbicide tolerance, the use of possibly carcinogenic herbicides have increased by 15 times since GM crops were produced for the first time, as Non GMO Project reports.
Ethical Issues In Medical Biotechnology
There are also many concerns when it comes to medical biotechnology.
One of these involves clinical trials. Biotechnology is new and people have been injured or lost their lives during drug trials. This means that extensive research needs to be conducted before human trials can be done.
There’s also the issue of who will get to benefit from biotechnology, with some critics being concerned that the richer people and nations of the world will be able to benefit more than those who are poor.
We also can’t ignore medical biotechnology ethics and stem cell research, which is one of the most controversial issues, especially because stem cells are at the core of a large amount of biotechnical research.
Since stem cell lines can grow into any kind of human tissue, they are exciting to research because they could heal people in safer ways, as Hofstra University reports.
Most stem cells arise as a result of embryos being fertilized in vitro and then put in frozen storage. This is where the issue becomes fraught because opponents to this technology believe that destroying embryos that are not used is seen as an ethical violation.
Finally, there’s the threat of dark biotechnology. One type of biotechnology is known as dark biotechnology. It is when people use biotechnology components in malicious ways to cause harm.
Examples of dark biotechnology include bioterrorism. This is a biological attack in which bacteria and viruses, such as those used by biotechnologists to solve problems or find cures for diseases, are intentionally released to harm the environment, livestock, or people.
China Vs. The U.S. – Biotech Competition
Over the last three decades, the U.S. has been the leading nation when it comes to biopharmaceutical products.
In 2016 alone, there were already 449 biopharmaceutical companies in the country, as Statista reports. But the country’s powerful edge over the industry could change.
China is now regarded as a growing biopharmaceutical market. One of the milestones it reached was when the country’s drug-approval process was changed so that it could be more similar to that of the U.S.
Recently, the country also approved roxadustat, a treatment for anemia. This was the first time ever that a novel drug molecule entered the Chinese market before first being approved by a Western regulator, as Nature reports.
With China catching up to its U.S. counterpart, it will be interesting to see who becomes the leading biotech power of the world.
Should You Invest In Biotech Companies?
Investing in biotech companies is always a gamble. Biotech companies are often unprofitable, with their stocks being volatile, and this is sometimes because they have long development lead times – it can take years for drugs to make it through the testing phase and enter pharmacies, as Investopedia reports.
However, there are profits that can be gained if you follow some smart tips when investing in biotech companies. These include the following:
- Giving attention to biotech companies that have many Phase 2 programs. This means that they have more than one drug candidate currently in Phase 2 testing, and it’s important because it can increase the company’s chances of success.
- Giving attention to biotech companies developing orphan drugs. These drugs refer to medicines that are being developed for illnesses that are not as well-known as others and quite rare. Such companies are provided with market exclusivity and often display less strict trial enrolment targets, making them beneficial for individual investors.
- Giving attention to biotech companies that keep their marketing rights. Some companies will develop their products and then pass them onto larger drug companies, while others will maintain their marketing rights. When companies do this, it can create more value for shareholders, although it is obviously much riskier.
What We Can Expect From Biotechnology In The Future
The future of biotechnology is an exciting one! Let’s explore what this technology can have in store for us.
It’s ineffective to treat everyone in the same way, as we all respond to medicine differently, and drug companies as well as health practitioners are realizing this.
Personalized medicine is something that we can expect and enjoy from biotechnology in the near future. It refers to how healthcare will be customized to the individual patient and will involve the patient’s genetic content to be used to find the best treatments for him or her.
Pharmacogenomics is a discipline that determines how a patient’s unique genetic profile will affect their response to pharmaceutical drugs, and this will be a great way to find out if administering a specific treatment will benefit the patient in question or not.
An End To World Hunger
- The use of GM crops can help to fight world hunger by ensuring that people have crops to eat no matter where they are – even arid landscapes could potentially grow food thanks to crops genetically modified to be able to grow in the harshest conditions.
- Staple foods, such as rice and potatoes, can become more resistant to diseases and filled with more nutritional value as a result of genetic engineering.
- Since many developing countries don’t have access to expensive farm machinery, the practice of putting herbicides into plants to kill off weeds with biotech methods, such as via genetic engineering, can also help to encourage a more plentiful harvest every year.
- Nutritional deficiencies are killing children who don’t have access to those nutrients due to a lack of food supply. Vitamin A, for example, causes over 670,000 children under the age of five to die every year, as Forbes reports. Therefore, Vitamin-A enhanced plants could help to thwart this tragedy. Golden rice is an example. It’s genetically engineered rice that contains beta-carotene which the body transforms into Vitamin A. Just one bowl can give a child 60 percent of his or her daily Vitamin A requirements, the site goes on to say.
Along with personalized medical treatments, there are also new and exciting ways in which biotechnology will help to treat diseases in the near future.
One of these is xenotransplantation, which is the use of animal organs to replace diseased or failing human organs. This could make a huge difference in preventing the deaths of people who are on organ donor lists.
While there are concerns when it comes to the ethics involved in this, as well as obstacles when ensuring that the human immune system doesn’t reject the animal organs, this is an exciting future prospect that could improve our health and even increase our lifespan.
Has any gene therapy been approved?
There’s one type of gene therapy treatment that has been approved in the U.S. It’s called Luxturna and it treats retinal diseases. We could see many more gene therapies within the next few years.
What animals can be used for xenotransplantation?
Pigs are the most likely animal to be used as their organs are similar to humans in size. There’s also less risk of infection from their organs because we share similar genes.
The world of biotech is an exciting one that’s already influencing our lives in many ways. In the near future, we can expect even more benefits as biotech processes and treatments strive to change the way in which we treat illnesses and find solutions to the world’s problems.
It will be interesting to see what happens because despite the potential risks associated with biotechnology, the various benefits that it offers the world certainly outweigh them.