What is Biotechnology?

An Introduction to Modern Biotechnology

What is Biotechnology

Biotechnology is most briefly defined as the art of utilizing living organisms and their products for the production of food, drink, medicine or for other benefits to the human race, or other animal species.

Agricultural Biotechnology

Technically speaking, humans have been making use of biotechnology since they discovered farming, with the planting of seeds to control plant growth and crop production.

Animal breeding is also a form of biotechnology. More recently, cross-pollination of plants and cross-breeding of animals were macro-biological techniques in biotechnology, used to enhance product quality and/or meet specific requirements or standards.

Biotech in Everyday Life

The discovery of microorganisms and the subsequent burst of knowledge related to the causes of infectious diseases, antibiotics and immunizations could probably be counted among man’s most significant, life-altering discoveries. However, the most modern techniques in biotechnology owe their existence to the discovery of DNA and the protein products of genes, most importantly, enzymes. The discovery of the techniques essential for gene cloning allowed scientists to manipulate enzyme structure and function for specific purposes. Current scientific methods are more specific than historical techniques, as scientists now directly alter genetic material with atomic precision, using techniques otherwise known as recombinant DNA technology.

Industrial Biotechnology

As technology advances, the many roles biotech plays in our lives increases. Since George Washington Carver, scientists have been learning how to use biochemicals isolated from plants, to produce chemical products for everyday use around the house, the first "green biotech products".

Since then, biotechnological advances can be found in nearly all sectors of industry. There are, of course, the obvious medical, pharmaceutical and food industries. Biotechnology is being used to determine cause and effect of various diseases and is used in the production of drugs.

Food Biotechnology

The production of foods is enhanced by biotechnological advances that improve crop yields, introduce in-situ insect resistance and provide new ways of food preservation. Other advances include packaging consisting of biomass plastics, or bioplastics, and built-in bioindicators for detecting contamination.

Environmental Biotechnology

In the environmental sector, biotech has played a role in remediation of contaminated land, water and air, pest control, treatment of industrial effluents and emissions, and acid mine drainage. Bioremediation and phytoremediation are used to restore brownfields for redevelopment.

Biotechnology in Space

Biotechnology has been a powerful tool for studying how organisms respond to low gravity and other environmental conditions found in outer space. Scientists have found that microorganisms exhibit genetic changes in orbit. Biotech is also being applied to develop horticultural techniques that might someday be used on the space station or on another planet.

Biotechnological Advances and the Human Race

Moral debates in bioethics continue to surround the field of biotechnology. The public response to issues such as the value of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), versus the risks involved in their release into the environment, more-or-less quenched the enthusiasm of the bioremediation industry for GMO research, in the early 1980’s. Genetically modified foods (GMFs) continue to be produced, but with more and more governments clamping down on production and distribution and answering calls by the public demanding strict testing and labeling procedures.

Exciting new developments are being made in biofuels research, at a time when fossil fuel prices are continually increasing. However, the question of whether a diminishing supply can meet the ever-increasing demand is under debate by those who don’t believe the fossil fuel crisis is imminent, and those who are concerned about the diversion of food crops for fuel production.

If they are correct, there is still some question of whether the cost of biofuels research and development is worth the effort.

The Stem Cell Research Debate

Stem cell research is a highly controversial area of biotechnology wherein pluripotent cells are used for biomedical purposes. There are the highly publicized and emotional debates surrounding the use of human embryos to derive stem cells and although the benefits of such research are obvious to most, the cost to human rights, morality, and religious integrity are too high for some. There are other sources of stem cells, however, and these alternatives are proving just as effective for regenerative medicine, therapeutic cloning, and other technological purposes.

The Current State of Affairs

Despite on-going debates and occasional roadblocks, the biotech industry continues to persevere. Anyone looking for a career in biotechnology can choose from a wide variety of scientific and non-scientific disciplines, ranging from molecular genetics to chemistry, to business management and law. A chosen career in a biotech startup is sure to lead to a variety of roles and responsibilities on a daily basis. A startup is a risky endeavor, both as a job choice or for venture investors. However, the many roles of a startup employee are what makes this career path appealing to many.

Almost every aspect of human life is touched by biotechnology. We continue to look for ways to improve our health, increase food production with an eye to feeding the poor in less industrialized countries, and clean up our environment. Green biotechnology offers environmentally sound solutions to the onslaughts of the industrial revolution, and a wealth of hidden answers to our most intriguing medical questions. For those reasons, biotech research will carry on and the industry is here to stay.