Biotechnology is a field of applied biology that involves the use of living things in engineering, technology, medicine, and other useful applications. Modern use of the term includes genetic engineering as well as cell and tissue culture technologies. The concept encompasses a wide range of procedures for modifying living organisms according to human purposes.
The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity defines biotechnology as “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use”.
Biotechnology draws on the pure biological sciences like genetics, microbiology, animal cell culture, molecular biology, biochemistry, embryology, cell biology, etc. In many instances, it is also dependent on knowledge and methods from outside the sphere of biology such as chemical engineering, bioprocess engineering, information technology, and bio robotics. Conversely, modern biological sciences including molecular ecology are intimately entwined and dependent on the methods developed through biotechnology.
Due to rapid progress in research, biotechnology is being widely applied in medicine and agriculture. Its application in medicine includes pharmacogenomics, pharmaceutical products, genetic testing, gene therapy, human genome project and even cloning. In agriculture it is applied to increase crop yield; reduce vulnerability of crops to environmental stresses; increase nutritional qualities; improve taste, texture or appearance of food; reduce dependence on fertilizers, pesticides and other agrochemicals; and to produce novel substances in crop plants.
The field of modern biotechnology is thought to have largely begun on June 16, 1980, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that a genetically modified microorganism could be patented in the case of Diamond vs. Chakrabarty. Indian-born Ananda Chakrabarty, working for General Electric, had developed a bacterium, derived from the Pseudomonas genus, capable of breaking down crude oil, which he proposed to use in treating oil spills.
Today, besides healthcare and agriculture, biotechnology has applications in non food (industrial) uses of crops and other products (e.g. biodegradable plastics, vegetable oil, biofuels), and environmental uses. For example, one application of biotechnology is the directed use of organisms for the manufacture of organic products (examples include beer and milk products). Another example is using naturally present bacteria by the mining industry in bioleaching. Biotechnology is also used to recycle, treat waste, cleanup sites contaminated by industrial activities (bioremediation), and also to produce biological weapons.
Biotechnology as a subject has become so vast that several branches have cropped up and a series of derived terms have been coined to identify them. Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field which addresses biological problems using computational techniques, and makes the rapid organization and analysis of biological data possible. Bioinformatics plays a key role in various areas, such as functional genomics, structural genomics, and proteomics, and forms a key component in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sector.
While blue biotechnology refers to the marine and aquatic applications of biotechnology, green biotechnology is applied to agricultural processes, red biotechnology is applied to medical processes, and white biotechnology is applied to industrial processes. The investment and economic output of all of these types of applied biotechnologies is termed as bio economy.
In medicine, modern biotechnology finds promising applications and is often associated with the use of genetically altered microorganisms such as E. coli or yeast for the production of substances like synthetic insulin or antibiotics. It can also refer to transgenic animals or transgenic Plants, such as corn. Genetically altered mammalian cells, such as Chinese Hamster Ovary (CHO) cells, are also used to manufacture certain pharmaceuticals. Biotechnology is also commonly associated with landmark breakthroughs in new medical therapies to treat hepatitis B, hepatitis C, cancers, arthritis, haemophilia, bone fractures, multiple sclerosis, and cardiovascular disorders.
The biotechnology industry has also been instrumental in developing molecular diagnostic devices that can be used to define the target patient population for a given biopharmaceutical. Another promising new biotechnology application is the development of plant-made pharmaceuticals.
An advantage of modern biotechnology is that it can be used to manufacture existing medicines relatively easily and cheaply. Modern biotechnology has evolved, making it possible to produce more easily and relatively cheaply human growth hormone, clotting factors for hemophiliacs, fertility drugs, erythropoietin and other drugs. Genomic knowledge of the genes involved in diseases, disease pathways, and drug-response sites are expected to lead to the discovery of thousands more new targets.
In agriculture, using the techniques of modern biotechnology, one or two genes may be transferred to a highly developed crop variety to impart a new character that would increase its yield. However, while increases in crop yield are the most obvious applications of modern biotechnology in agriculture, it is also the most difficult one. Current genetic engineering techniques work best for effects that are controlled by a single gene.
Many of the genetic characteristics associated with yield (e.g., enhanced growth) are controlled by a large number of genes, each of which has a minimal effect on the overall yield. There is, therefore, much scientific work to be done in this area.
Another application of biotechnology involves developing crops that contain genes that enable them to withstand biotic and abiotic stresses. Biotechnologists are studying plants that can cope with extreme conditions like drought and excessively salty soil in the hope of finding the genes that enable them to do so and eventually transferring these genes to the more desirable crops.
Biotechnology would also help in modifying proteins in foods to increase their nutritional qualities. Proteins in legumes and cereals may be transformed to provide the amino acids needed by human beings for a balanced diet. Modern biotechnology can be used to slow down the process of spoilage so that fruit can ripen longer on the plant and then be transported to the consumer with a still reasonable shelf life. This alters the taste, texture and appearance of the fruit. More importantly, networked cameras that enable governments to watch our every move, rapid invention of wondrous products, or weapons development fast enough to destabilize any arms race.
The whole concept of advanced nanotechnology and MM is so complex, unfamiliar, and staggering in its implications, that a few scientists and engineers have flatly declared it to be impossible. The debate is further confused by science-fictional hype and media misconceptions. However, in spite of such criticism, if nanotechnologists are to be believed, the technology will come about offering great potential for benefit to humankind, and also bringing severe dangers. While it is appropriate to examine carefully the risks and possible toxicity of nanoparticles and other products of Nano scale technology, the greatest hazards are posed by malicious or unwise use of molecular manufacturing.
Viewed with pessimism, MM could appear far too risky to be allowed to develop to anywhere near its full potential. However, a naive approach to limiting R&D, such as relinquishment, is flawed for at least two reasons. First, it will almost certainly be impossible to prevent the development of MM somewhere in the world. China, Japan, and other Asian nations have thriving nanotechnology programs, and the rapid advance of enabling technologies such as biotechnology, MEMS, and scanning-probe microscopy ensures that R&D efforts will be far easier in the near future than they are today.
Second, MM will provide benefits that are simply too good to pass up, including environmental repair; clean, cheap, and efficient manufacturing; medical breakthroughs; immensely powerful computers; and easier access to space. So preparing ourselves and the world for this technology acquires urgency.