Biotechnology is a broad term that refers to the process of using living organisms and biological systems to develop products, technologies, and services. Its main goal is to use biology to improve our lives.
As early as the prehistoric period, people have been engaging in biotechnology, although the term itself was only coined in the 1900s. Examples of traditional biotechnology include domesticating animals, breadmaking, fermenting food, brewing alcoholic beverages, such as beer, and cultivating plants, among others.
These days, modern biotechnology is synonymous with genetic engineering where genes are modified, removed, or manipulated to change the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) information of organisms.
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History of Biotechnology
Although the history of biotechnology as an industry began in the early 1900s, ancient Egyptians and Chinese were already using it way before then. They fermented food, made cheese and bread, and created traditional medicines using honey and soy curd. The Aztecs also used spirulina algae to make cakes.
Fast forward to the 14th century and we saw brewery and distillation gain popularity. Zymotechnology, a study of the fermentation capability of yeast in beer and foodstuff, also emerged. In fact, biotechnology arose from the field of zymotechnology.
Between the 16th and 17th centuries, cells, protozoa, and bacteria were discovered. Edward Jenner started creating the vaccine for smallpox, another product of biotechnology. But it was only in 1919 that Károly Ereky coined the term “biotechnology.” At that time, the concept referred to transforming materials into new, useful products.
In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by using molds. In 1941, the term “genetic engineering” came about. Scientists opined that genetic engineering signaled the emergence of what we know today as “modern biotechnology.”
After World War II, a lot of scientific discoveries mainly related to biology and health were seen. These days, biotechnology is primarily used in the fields of agriculture, medicine and pharmaceuticals, and genetic engineering.
Branches of Biotechnology
Biotechnology is a vast field that can be broken down into five major scopes discussed in more detail below.
1. Animal biotechnology
In this branch, the genome (i.e., the complete set of genes) of animals is altered using molecular biology for agricultural and pharmaceutical purposes. A sample product of this is transgenic animals. The process involves transferring a gene from one animal to another to enhance the overall health of the recipient. It makes the receiving animal immune to a particular disease, have more lean muscles, and the like.
2. Medical biotechnology
This branch harnesses living cells for the research and development of pharmaceutical products or drugs that aim to cure, prevent, or alleviate human diseases. Examples of its products include antibiotics and insulin.
3. Plant biotechnology
Similar to animal biotechnology, this branch transfers the traits or genes of one plant to another plant to produce sustainable and healthy crops or food. Researchers in this field use genetic engineering.
4. Industrial biotechnology
This branch is relatively new. It uses biotechnology to improve the manufacture of products. It promotes pollution prevention and sustainability by conserving resources and reducing costs. An example of this is using enzymes to rid clothes of stains instead of utilizing the phosphates seen in laundry detergents, which are known pollutants.
5. Environmental biotechnology
In this branch, solid, liquid, and gaseous wastes are biotechnologically treated using natural microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses, thus detoxifying the dangerous substances.
Applications of Biotechnology
Biotechnology is applied in at least four industrial sectors, namely:
Healthcare or medical
This includes pharmaceutical drug discovery and production, pharmacogenomics, and genetic testing or screening. A DNA microarray chip is an example of biotechnology that can perform as many as a million blood tests at once. Pharmacogenomics, meanwhile, is a technology that analyzes how someone’s genetic makeup affects his/her response to drugs. It aims to develop a rational means to optimize drug therapy by looking at a patient’s genotype or complete genetic makeup to ensure maximum efficacy with minimal adverse effects. Genetic testing lessens one’s chances of inheriting diseases. It can also determine a child’s parentage or ancestry.
Crop production and agriculture
Genetically modified (GM) or biotech crops are those whose DNA has been changed using genetic engineering techniques to introduce a new and unnatural trait to a species. Biotechnology firms can contribute to future food security.
Nonfood or industrial
Known as “white biotechnology” in Europe, this refers to the application of biotechnology in industrial processes, such as industrial fermentation. It includes using cells, such as microorganisms or enzymes, to generate industrially useful products in the chemical, food and feed, detergent, paper and pulp, and textile and biofuel sectors. We’ve seen significant progress in creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs). And by using renewable raw materials to produce chemicals and fuels, industrial biotechnology is actively lowering greenhouse gas emissions and helping us move away from a petrochemical-based economy.
Biotechnology can affect the environment. While bioremediation cleans up oil spills or hazardous chemical leaks, some biotechnological enterprises that let transgenic organisms transform into wild strains adversely affect the environment.
Biotechnology has both positive and negative repercussions, as this post showed. It also talked about the different applications of biotechnology.