Biotechnology, as the word implies, is a combination of various technologies, applied together to living cells and bacteria for production of numerous goods that benefit the human beings. The name biotechnology was given by Hungarian engineer Karoly Ereky in 1919 to describe a technology based on converting raw materials into a more useful product. These technologies are including not only biology, but also subjects like mathematics, physics, chemistry and engineering.
The applications of biotechnology range from agriculture (animal reproduction, cropping systems, soil science and soil conservation, plant physiology, seed and crop management) to industry (food, pharmaceutical products, chemicals, textiles etc.), medicine, nutrition, environmental conservation and cell biology, making it one of the fastest growing fields. Health, life quality and expectancy of life have been increased worldwide through the services provided by biotechnology (1).
Biotechnology also contributes towards the growing public health needs in industrialized and developing countries. It provides effective diagnostics, prevention and treatment measures including production of novel drugs and recombinant vaccines (2). It gives effective drug delivery approaches, new methods for therapeutics, nutritionally enriched crops and efficient methods for environmental cleanup.
Many conventional diagnostic tools are inaccurate, time consuming, laborious and expensive. In contrast, modern biotechnology comprised of molecular diagnostic tools sketches recent advances in biology for the detection of diseases. Molecular diagnostics have been ranked by the scientific panel in the University of Toronto as the best set of technologies for improving the health status (3). Parasitic and infectious diseases like Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and tuberculosis (TB) have been diagnosed rapidly at relatively low cost.
Molecular diagnostic tools including polymerase chain reaction (PCR) (4), recombinant antigens and monoclonal antibodies have been used for this purpose. Biotechnology has offered modern diagnostic test kits, bacterial and viral vaccines along with radiolabelled biological therapeutics for imaging and analysis. Vaccines have eliminated small pox, polio and other deadly diseases for the last hundred years. Biotechnology has made advancements in vaccination by making recombinant vaccines that have the potential to eradicate non-communicable diseases like cancer. Naked DNA vaccines, viral vector vaccines and plant-derived vaccines are found to be most effective against a number of bacterial and viral disorders (5).
Biotechnology offers cheaper drug and vaccine delivery tools that eliminate blood-borne infections caused by re-use of needles. The modern needle-free technologies use high speed jets of gas to introduce the vaccine inside the human body. The drugs and vaccines can be diffused into the body or inhaled through nasal sprays. Lately, drugs are efficiently delivered into the body using nano-particles.
Another promising direction in biotechnology is the research and production of recombinant therapeutic proteins that will be used for the cure of rare diseases which are impossible to treat by conventional therapies. In the future, therapeutic proteins may be used against asthma, different cancers, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases (6).
As mentioned before, the application of modern biotechnologies offers nutrients-enriched genetically modified food. This is critically important in developing countries where over half of the infant deaths occur due to the deficiency of essential nutrients and vitamins. Malnutrition causes impaired cognitive and physical development and multiple illnesses such as anemia. Also, malnutrition has adverse effects on immune system. In order to overcome these nutrients and vitamin’s deficiency, biotechnology enables to introduce new genes and new traits into crops more precisely than traditional breeding. Some of the nutrients- enriched food are the ‘Golden Rice” (rice enriched in beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A), zinc- and iron-enriched maize, potato, soybean and milk (enriched in a protein called casein) (7).
Environmental biotechnology improves the safety of public health through efficient methods of pollution prevention and treatment of human or industrial waste products. Biodegradation of heavy metals and bioremediation are two of the commonly used methods of treatment. The first technology uses microorganisms that have enzymes to reduce or oxidize the heavy metals which helps in the biodegradation of waste containing these heavy metals. The second technology uses microorganisms like bacteria and fungi to biodegrade, breakdown or convert the pollutants and contaminants into non-toxic chemicals. Contaminants are used as an energy source by the microorganisms and then they are converted to less toxic forms.
In this unit, students will be exposed to the main concepts of Biotechnology and learn that through the use of Biotechnology, the scientists and engineers are attempting to modify genetic structure in animals and plants to improve them in a desired way for getting beneficial products.