Biotechnology leverages biological systems to create valuable products and industrial processes. This innovative approach to solving problems has an immense application that cuts across nutrition, energy (biofuels), health, and medicine, among others.
What is Biotechnology?
Biotechnology is a series of techniques, processes, and methods that uses biological systems and living organisms or their parts to create or modify a wide variety of products or processes for specific uses. The biotechnology process comprises basic and applied research that integrates different approaches derived from the technology and application of biological sciences.
How Biotechnology Works
Strictly speaking, every living organism is programmed with the same genetic material referred to as DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). For eukaryotic organisms like plants, animals, fungus, and other non-prokaryotic organisms, the DNA is located in the nucleus known as nuclear DNA. However, in prokaryotes like bacteria or archaebacteria, the DNA is located in the cytoplasm. Characteristically, the DNA is made up of nucleotides comprising of a sugar (deoxyribose), a phosphate and four nitrogenous base—adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C).
The nucleotides pair up into strands that coil tightly into a spiral called a “double helix” structure. Segments of DNA or genes are what tell individual cells how to make specific proteins. The presence or otherwise of such protein manifests in the form of traits or characteristics in organisms. Due to its extraordinary length, to fit perfectly into the cells, the double helix structure of the DNA is tightly packed to form a chromosome located in the cell nucleus.
The genetic information in the chromosome and interactions between genes and its environment controls multicellular development from a single cell through embryo to adulthood. During cellular reproduction, the DNA strands uncoil, i.e., its double helix separates.
Because nucleotide A always pairs with T and G with C accordingly, each strand contains a blueprint for a specific protein. Barring mutation or mistakes that may occur during replication, a single cell is equipped with requisite genetic information to make millions of copies of itself. Biotechnologists leverage the fact that all organisms contain the same genetic materials (nucleotides; A, T, G, and C) and work to modify DNA segments (genes) using enzymes.
For instance, using enzymes, they can cut off and remove a DNA segment or gene from one organism and recombine it with the DNA of different organisms in a process referred to as recombinant DNA (rDNA) or genetic engineering. The rDNA is then inserted into living organisms. Through rDNA, desired products/ characteristics are either created or undesirable ones eliminated. This is the basis of biotechnology.
Modifying, removing, or adding gene fragments to DNA molecules changes its genetic information. This process enables biotechnologists to discover new or improved products like drugs, human gene therapy, crops, etc.
Features of Biotechnology
Biotechnology has several attributes that make it unique. Some of its key features include:
- Based on recombinant DNA (rDNA) or genetic engineering.
- Uses living organisms or their parts to create or modify a product.
- Is a multidisciplinary approach encompassing key scientific disciplines with biological sciences (molecular biology, biochemistry, cell biology, genetics, and microbiology) as the primary discipline.
- Has a wide range of applications, including in medicine, agriculture, science, engineering, etc.
Benefits of Biotechnology
Living organisms and their derivatives have contributed immensely to technological advancement in the 21st century. Some applications and benefits of biotechnology include:
Biotechnology in Health
- Biotechnology is essential in the development of biopharmaceutical products— therapeutic products generated through the use of recombinant DNA technology. These products include vaccines and monoclonal antibodies, blood factors, enzymes, hormones, antibiotics, growth factors, cytokines, etc.
- These lifesaving products are synthesized directly from various living organisms using biotechnological processes. For instance, insulin, human growth hormone, and interferon alpha-2b are all produced from bacteria. Hepatitis B vaccine, human albumin, human papillomavirus vaccine are synthesized from yeast.
- Another therapy like erythropoietin and factor VIII, among others, comes from mammalian cells. It is also central to emerging approaches to cancer treatment that combines personalized vaccines, cell therapy, gene editing, and microbiome.
- Through biotechnological processes involving chemical reactions, fermentation and heating, starches, sugars (from corn, sorghum, barley, rice, potato skin, etc.), and other plant molecules are broken down to form products that are further refined to yield biofuels (ethanol and biomass diesel) that cars or other vehicles can use. Biofuels are vital green energy fuels and among the key substitutes for fossil fuels in the quest to reduce global warming.
Agriculture and Food Production
- In agriculture, biotechnology plays a vital role in achieving a higher and quality yield in both plant and animal production, thus improving food production. Crop plants with improved flowering capacity, increased ability to absorb nutrients, resistance to drought, pests, diseases, etc., have led to higher quality yield, thanks to biotechnology.
- Also, increased reproduction and breeding have been achieved through embryo transfers, in vitro fertilization, cloning, and sex determination of embryos. In addition, fast diagnosis of and treatment of disease in livestock guarantees quality milk and meat for human consumption.
- Bioremediation leverages the catabolic powers of microorganisms, fungi, plants, and enzymes to clean up contaminated ecosystems. This biotechnological process is beneficial in ecological recovery and environmental protection.
- Industrial biotechnology applications are seen in the use of microorganisms and enzymes to make bio-based products like detergents, paper, textiles sectors, food ingredients, etc. The evolution of new intelligent materials from biotechnological processes has only just begun. Soon, we could have self-healing concrete, plants that change color on detecting explosives, clothing, and footwear made with synthetic spider silk, etc.