Biotechnology harnesses the power of biology in order to develop new products and even organisms, and the term also describes the methods used to prove innovative solutions to modern challenges in health and other fields. Biotechnology (also known as ‘Biotech’) is a science that has been in existence for the entirety of human existence and was responsible for the discovery of fermentation, improved strains of crops, and more productive breeds of domesticated animals. Scientists accomplished these using complex processes such as custom bioconjugation.
Continued developments in the field of Biotechnology led first to the more efficient manufacture of bread and later vaccines. But, the last century has seen the maturation and advancement of Biotech to encompass the manipulation of tissue on the molecular level, for instance, Biotechnology professionals can now manipulate genetic structures and alter the biomolecular structures of a variety of living organisms. The practice of Biotechnology draws from the fields of both science and technology – and can include the following disciplines:
- Molecular biology
- Genetic engineering
Leveraging the complementary relationships between these disciplines has led to a variety of breakthroughs and innovations, including:
- Treating and preventing disease through the development of new medicines and therapeutic approaches to human health, including the treatment of disease
- Improved diagnostic tools such as those used for pregnancy tests
- The development and production of Biofuels, reducing the impact of fossil fuels on the environment – and reducing air and water pollution
- The development of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) that are positively impacting the operations of agricultural concerns, including improving the cost-effectiveness of operations and yield figures
Increasingly the modern applications of Biotechnology include a focus on genetic engineering. That field is concerned with the manipulation, modification, or interaction with cell structures that are responsible for passing on genetic code. In short, every plant or animal contains genetic material that produces proteins – and it is these proteins that will dictate the characteristics of any organism.
Biotechnology Throughout History
Biotechnology had its beginnings around 6,000 years ago when man was first exploring organized agriculture. Perhaps not coincidentally this was also the time when the process of fermentation was discovered. This was not only useful in the production of alcohol, but also for innovations in bread and cheesemaking. Through selective breeding, a form of applied Biotechnology, societies began to change the genetic makeup of domesticated plants and animals. Based on ongoing work by scientists, genetic engineering was recognized as a field in 1973.
Applications of Biotechnology
Medical Biotechnology which is also known as ‘biopharma’ is focused on preventing and treating disease and the general improvement of healthcare. biomedicine and the research that underpins it are the foundation of the modern pharma industry – and its uses include the following:
- The field of stem cell research can provide insight into how medical practitioners can alter cells in order to repair them
- The development of new antibiotic treatments
- Research into gene therapies for chronic conditions such as Leukemia
- Stem cell research that helps replace or repair dead or defective cells
- Pathogen research to identify dangerous conditions and their causes – and develop antibodies to treat these conditions
This field of Biotech involves the manipulation of plant and animal genes in order to optimize agricultural yields, improve the health and disease resistance of stock or crops and benefit agricultural operations in many other ways. This also helps in increasing the nutritional value of agricultural output – and addresses the ongoing challenge of food insecurity. Some examples of Biotechnology in agriculture include:
- The production of more efficient herbicides and pesticides that are not potentially harmful to human beings than alternative chemical treatments
- The production of gluten-free grain varietals to improve the quality of life of those suffering from Celiac Disease
- Developing more effective supplements as food additives to add nutrients. This can improve diet – and assist in the development of more efficient medical treatments
The Advantages of Biotechnology
Global societies face ongoing challenges, and the practice of Biotechnology can provide solutions to these challenges. These current challenges include the following:
- Reducing pollution levels, including waste generation in order to control and eventually halt the effects of global warming and environmental damage
- The creation of healthier, more resistant, and sustainable food products that can make a positive contribution to solving the challenge of global food insecurity – and improve the nutritional content of food products
- Treating childhood diseases prior to birth by alteration of the genome
- Developing medicines and medical solutions that can increase human longevity and improve the health of people, plants, and animals
- Reducing the costs associated with agricultural operations by developing new herbicides and pesticides – and improving crop yields and agricultural profits.
The Disadvantages of Biotechnology
As with most scientific disciplines, the practice of Biotechnology can provide opportunities for misuse. The major challenges in this area are:
- The threat of biological warfare. It is now possible to develop pathogens that can create epidemics that would ravage a conflict zone by infecting vast amounts of people.
- Decreasing Biodiversity. Monocropping (single crop) farming threatens to reduce biodiversity by introducing bio-engineered crops that can outcompete other species. Less biodiversity means lowered resistance to disease and pests and reduced adaptability when faced with sudden environmental change.
- A decrease in soil fertility. Plants that have been bio-engineered still require soil nutrients in order to provide higher yields.
There have been numerous efforts to pass legislation limiting or outright banning certain types of Biotech research or processes. Problem areas such as human cloning, embryonic stem-cell research, and GMOs continue to provide challenges.