What is Biotechnology?

Biotechnology is the use of biological systems found in organisms or the use of the living organisms themselves to make technological advances and adapt those technologies to various fields. These include applications in multiple fields, from agricultural practice to the medical sector. It does not only include applications in fields that involve the living but also any other field where the information obtained from the biological aspect of an organism can be applied.

Biotechnology is particularly vital when it comes to the development of minuscule and chemical tools, as many of the tools biotechnology uses exist at the cellular level. In a bid to understand more regarding biotechnology, here are its types, examples, and applications.

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According to the Biotechnology Innovation Organization,

“Biotechnology is technology based on biology – biotechnology harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet. We have used the biological processes of microorganisms for more than 6,000 years to make useful food products, such as bread and cheese, and to preserve dairy products.”

Types of Biotechnology

1. Medical Biotechnology

Medical biotechnology is the use of living cells and other cell materials to better the health of humans. Primarily, it is used for finding cures as well as getting rid of and preventing diseases.

The science involved includes the use of these tools for research to find different or more efficient ways of maintaining human health, understanding pathogens, and understanding human cell biology.

Here, the technique is used to produce pharmaceutical drugs as well as other chemicals to combat diseases. It involves the study of bacteria, plant & animal cells, to first understand the way they function at a fundamental level.

It heavily involves the study of DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) to get to know how to manipulate the genetic makeup of cells to increase the production of beneficial characteristics that humans might find useful, such as the production of insulin.

The field usually leads to the development of new drugs and treatments, novel to the field.

Examples of Medical Biotechnology

Vaccines

Vaccines are chemicals that stimulate the body’s immune system to better fight pathogens when they attack the body. They achieve this by inserting attenuated (weakened) versions of the disease into the body’s bloodstream.

It causes the body to react as if it was under attack from the non-attenuated version of the disease. The body combats the weakened pathogens and, through the process, takes note of the cell structure of the pathogens and has some cells that ‘remember’ the disease and store away the information within the body.

When the individual becomes exposed to the actual disease, the body of the individual immediately recognizes it and quickly forms a defense against it since it already has some information on it. This translates to quicker healing and less time being symptomatic.

The attenuated disease pathogens are extracted using biotechnological techniques such as growing the antigenic proteins in genetically engineered crops. An example is the development of an anti-lymphoma vaccine using genetically engineered tobacco plants made to exhibit RNA (a similar chemical to DNA) from malignant (actively cancerous) B-cells.

Antibiotics

Strides have been made in the development of antibiotics that combat pathogens for humans. Many plants are grown and genetically engineered to produce the antibodies.

The method is more cost-effective than using cells or extracting these antibodies from animals as the plants can produce these antibodies in larger quantities.

2. Agricultural Biotechnology

Agricultural biotechnology focuses on developing genetically modified plants to increase crop yields or introduce characteristics to those plants that provide them with an advantage growing in regions that place some kind of stress factor on the plant, namely weather, and pests.

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In some of the cases, the practice involves scientists identifying a characteristic, finding the gene that causes it, and then putting that gene within another plant so that it gains that desirable characteristic, making it more durable or having it produce larger yields than it previously did.

Examples of Agricultural Biotechnology

Pest Resistant Crops

Biotechnology has provided techniques for the creation of crops that express anti-pest characteristics naturally, making them very resistant to pests, as opposed to having to keep dusting them and spraying them with pesticides. An example of this would be the fungus Bacillus thuringiensis genes being transferred to crops.

The reason for this is that the fungus produces a protein (Bt), which is very effective against pests such as the European corn borer. The Bt protein is the desired characteristic scientist would like the plants to have, and for this reason, they identified the gene causing Bt protein to express in the fungus and transferred it to corn.

The corn then produces the protein toxin naturally, lowering the cost of production by eliminating the cost of dusting the crop with pesticide.

Plant and Animal Breeding

Selective breeding has been a practice humans have engaged in since farming began. The practice involves choosing the animals with the most desirable characteristics to breed with each other so that the resulting offspring would also express these traits.

Desirable characteristics included larger animals, animals more resistant to disease, and more domicile animals, all geared to making the process of farming as profitable as possible.

This practice has been transferred to the molecular level with the same purpose. Different traits are selected among the animals, and once the genetic markers have been pointed out, animals and plants with those traits are selected and bred for those traits to be transferred.

A genomic understanding of those traits is what informs the decisions on whether the desired traits will express or get lost as recessive traits that do not show.

Such information provides the basis for making informed decisions enhancing the capability of the scientists to predict the expression of those genes. An example is its use in flower production, where traits such as color and smell potency are enhanced.

3. Industrial Biotechnology

Industrial biotechnology is the application of biotechnology for industrial purposes that also include industrial fermentation. Applying the techniques of modern molecular biology, it improves efficiency and reduces the multifaceted environmental impacts of industrial processes including paper and pulp, chemical manufacturing, and textile.

It includes the practice of using cells such as microorganisms, or components of cells like enzymes, to generate products in sectors that are industrially useful, such as food and feed, chemicals, detergents, paper and pulp, textiles, biofuels, and biogas.

In the current decade, significant progress has been made in creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that enhance the diversity of applications and the economic viability of industrial biotechnology. 

Industrial biotechnology is also actively advancing towards lowering greenhouse gas emissions by using renewable raw materials to produce a variety of chemicals and fuels and moving away from a petrochemical-based economy.

Examples of Industrial Biotechnology

Biocatalysts

Biocatalysts have been developed by the industrial biotechnology companies such as enzymes, to synthesize chemicals. Enzymes are proteins produced by all organisms. The desired enzyme can be manufactured in commercial quantities using biotechnology.

Fermentation

The crop’s sugar can be fermented to acid, which can then be used as an intermediate to produce other chemical feedstocks for various products. Some plants, such as corn, can be used in place of petroleum to produce chemicals. 

Microorganisms

Microorganisms find their use in chemical production for the design and manufacture of new plastics/textiles and the development of new sustainable energy sources such as biofuels.

4. Environmental Biotechnology 

Environmental biotechnology is the technology used in waste treatment and pollution prevention that can more efficiently clean up many wastes compared to conventional methods and significantly reduce our dependence on methods for land-based disposal.

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Every organism ingests nutrients to live and produces byproducts as a result. But, different organisms need different types of nutrients. Some bacteria also thrive on the chemical components of waste products.

Environmental engineers introduce nutrients to stimulate the activity of bacteria that already exists in the soil at a waste site or add new bacteria to the soil. The bacteria help in digesting the waste right at the site, thereby turning it into harmless byproducts.

After consuming the waste materials, the bacteria either die off or return to their normal population levels in the environment. There are cases where the byproducts of the pollution-fighting microorganisms are themselves useful.

Examples of Environmental Biotechnology 

Bioremediation

Bioremediation refers to the application of biotechnical methods which help in developing enzyme bioreactors that will not only pretreat some industrial and food waste components but also allow their efficient removal via sewage system without using solid waste disposal mechanisms.

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Color Classification of Branches of Biotechnology

Gold biotechnology or Bioinformatics referred to as computational biology and can be defined as “conceptualizing biology” to address biological problems using computational techniques and makes the rapid organization as well as analysis of biological data possible.

Red Biotechnology (Biopharma) relates to medicine and veterinary products. It can help developing new drugs, regenerative therapies, produce vaccines and antibiotics, molecular diagnostics techniques, and genetic engineering techniques to cure diseases applying genetic manipulation.

White Biotechnology draws inspiration from industrial biotech to design more energy-efficient, less polluting, and low resource-consuming processes and products that can beat traditional ones.

Yellow Biotechnology relates to the use of biotechnology in food production, for example, in making wine, cheese, and beer by fermentation.

Grey Biotechnology refers to environmental applications to maintain biodiversity and the removal of pollutants or contaminants using microorganisms and plants to isolate and dispose of many kinds of substances such as heavy metals and hydrocarbons.

Green Biotechnology emphasizes on agriculture that involves creating new plant varieties of agricultural interest, biopesticides, and biofertilizers.

This area of biotech is exclusively based on transgenics (genetic modification), i.e., an extra gene or genes inserted into their DNA. The additional gene may come from the same species or a different species.

Blue Biotechnology is based on the use of marine resources to create products and applications in the potentially huge range of sectors to benefit from the use of this kind of biotechnology. 

Violet Biotechnology deals with the law, ethical and philosophical issues around biotechnology.

Dark Biotechnology is associated with bioterrorism or biological weapons and biowarfare using microorganisms, and toxins to cause diseases and death in humans, domestic animals, and crops.

Applications of Biotechnology

1. Nutrient Supplementation

One of the most important uses of biotechnology is the infusion of nutrients into food in situations such as aid. Therefore, it provides food with heavy nutrients that are necessary for such circumstances.

An example of this application is the production Golden Rice where the rice is infused with beta-carotene. The rice has Vitamin A, which the body can quickly synthesize.

2. Abiotic Stress Resistance

There is actually very little land on earth that is arable, with some estimates that place it at around 20 percent. With an increase in the world’s population, there is a need for the food sources available to be as effective as possible to produce as much food in as little space as possible. There is also a need to have the crops grown to be able to make use of the less arable regions of the world.

It means that there is a need to develop crops that can handle these abiotic stresses such as salinity, drought, and frost from cold.

In Africa and the Middle East, for instance, where the climate can be unforgiving, the practice has played a significant role in the development of crops that can withstand the prevailing harsh climates.

3. Industrial Biotechnology

Industrial biotechnology is the application of biotechnology that ranges from the production of cellular structures to the production of biological elements for numerous uses.

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Examples include the creation of new materials in the construction industry, and the manufacture of beer and wine, washing detergents, and personal care products.

4. Strength Fibres

One of the materials with the strongest tensile strength is spider webs. Amongst other materials with the same cross-sectional width, spider webs can take more tensional force before breaking than even steel.

This silk has created much interest in the possible production of materials made from silk, including body armor such as bulletproof jackets. Silk is used because it is stronger than Kevlar (the material most commonly used to make body armor).

Biotechnological techniques have been used to pick the genes found in spiders and their infusion in goats to produce the silk proteins in their milk.

With this initiative, it makes production quite easier as goats are much easier to handle compared to spiders, and the creation of silk via milk also helps make the processing and handling much convenient compared to handling the actual silk strands.

5. Biofuels

One of the biggest applications of biotechnology is in the energy production sector. With fears over the dwindling oil resources in the world and their related environmental impacts, there is a growing need to protect the globe’s future by finding alternative environmentally friendly fuel sources.

Biotechnology is allowing this to happen with advances such as using corn to produce combustible fuel for running car engines. These fuels are good for the environment as they do not produce greenhouse gases.

6. Healthcare

Biotechnology is applied in the healthcare sector in the development of pharmaceuticals that have proven problematic to produce through other conventional means because of purity concerns.

7. Food Processing

The method of fermentation using the microbial organisms and their derivatives is applied by which raw materials that are non-palatable and easily perishable are converted to edible and potable foods and beverages, which have a longer shelf life. 

8. Fuel from Waste

Applying bioremediation waste can be converted to biofuel to run generators. Microbes can be induced to produce enzymes required to turn plant and vegetable materials into building blocks for biodegradable plastics. 

Methane can be derived from a type of bacteria that degrades sulfur liquor, which is a waste product of the paper manufacturing industry. The resultant methane can be utilized in other industrial processes or as fuel.

9. Commodity Chemicals and Specialty Chemicals

These can be produced using biotech applications. Traditional chemical synthesis uses often-undesirable products, such as HCl, and involves large amounts of energy.

The production of the same chemicals can be done more economically and made more environmentally friendly using biocatalysts. E.g., Polymer-grade acrylamide.

10. Hi-Tech Finishing Fabrics

Biotechnology is used in the textile industry for the finishing of fabrics and garments. It produces biotech-derived cotton, which is warmer, stronger, wrinkle & shrink-resistant and has improved dye uptake and retention, enhanced absorbency.

11. Detergent Proteases

These are essential components of modern detergents that remove protein impurities and are used for breaking down starch, protein, and fatty acids present on items being washed. The production of protease results in biomass that, in turn, yields a useful byproduct, an organic fertilizer.

12. Wound Dressings

Biotechnology also applied to the use of wound dressings coated with Chitosan, which is a sugar that is typically obtained from shrimp and crab shells.

References:

Biotechnology FAQ

What is Biotechnology?

Trends and Products of Biotechnology

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