WHAT IS BIOTECHNOLOGY

Biotechnology and its impact on today's and tomorrow's world

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Biotechnology is not a new discipline, but it is advancing by leaps and bounds and it has more and more applications in our day-to-day lives: from pharmaceutical development to food production and the treatment of polluting waste. We explore this exciting field below and try to determine how far it might go in the future.

Although we literally have biotechnology in our genes, it never ceases to amaze us with its continuous innovations, almost more akin to science fiction. The revolutionary spirit of those advances prior to the creation of the term—such as the fermentation of bread, cheese or wine— has remained intact until the present day, more than 6,000 years later, just when human beings are wondering what, if any, are the limits of this technology, that could take us a very long way in the future.

WHAT IS BIOTECHNOLOGY

Biotechnology uses living cells to develop or manipulate products for specific purposes, such as genetically modified foods. Biotechnology is thus linked to genetic engineering and emerged as a field in its own right at the beginning of the 20th century in the food industry, which was later joined by other sectors such as medicine and the environment.

Today, the five branches into which modern biotechnology is divided — human, environmental, industrial, animal and plant — help us fight hunger and disease, produce more safely, cleanly and efficiently, reduce our ecological footprint and save energy. All of this has excited stock markets like Wall Street, where biotech was one of the most profitable sectors of the NASDAQ Composite index in 2019.

The evolution of biotechnology over the last century

Year 2020
Biotechnology innovations lead the fight against the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.
Year 2013
The first bionic eye is produced in the US giving hope to blind people worldwide.
Year 2010
A group of researchers from the J.Craig Ventere Institute creates the first synthetic cell.
Year 1998
A draft of the human genome map is created that locates more than 30,000 genes.
Year 1997
Scientists introduce the world to Dolly the sheep, the first clone of a mammal.
Year 1983
The first genetically modified (transgenic) plant is presented.
Year 1969
An enzyme is synthesized in vitro for the first time in history.
Year 1953
Biologists James Watson and Francis Crick describe the double helix of DNA.
Year 1943
Canadian scientist Oswald Theordore Avery discovers that DNA is the carrier of genes.
Year 1928
Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming discovers the antibiotic use of penicillin.
Year 1919
Hungarian agronomist Karl Ereky coins the term biotechnology.

 

 SEE INFOGRAPHIC: The evolution of biotechnology over the last century [PDF]

USES AND APPLICATIONS OF BIOTECHNOLOGY

Biotechnological innovations are already part of our daily lives and we find them in pharmacies and supermarkets, among many other places. In addition, in recent months biotechnology has become one of the spearheads in the fight against the COVID-19 global pandemic, since it helps to decipher the virus' genome and understand how the our body's defence mechanism works against infectious agents.

Biotechnology will therefore play a crucial role in the society of the future in preventing and containing potential pathogens. But this is just one of its many applications... Below, we review some of the most relevant in different fields:

 Medicine

The development of insulin, the growth hormone, molecular identity and diagnostics, gene therapies and vaccines such as hepatitis B are some of the milestones of biotechnology and its alliance with genetic engineering.

 Industry

The revolution of the new smart materials hand-in-hand with biotechnology has only just begun. Soon we could have self-healing concrete, plants that change colour when they detect an explosive, clothing and footwear made with synthetic spider web, etc.

 Food

In addition to the genetically modified foods mentioned above, thanks to biotechnology products such as WEMA have been created, a type of crop resistant to droughts and certain insects that may prove essential in fighting hunger in Africa.

 Environment

Through bioremediation processes, very useful for ecological recovery, the catabolic properties of microorganisms, fungi, plants and enzymes are used to restore contaminated ecosystems.

TYPES OF BIOTECHNOLOGY

Like the stripes of the rainbow, the different biotechnology applications are grouped into seven colours or research and development areas. In this section, we highlight the most relevant of each of them.

  • Red biotechnology. This is the health branch and responsible, according to the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), for the development of more than 250 vaccines and medications such as antibiotics, regenerative therapies and the production of artificial organs.
  • Green biotechnology. It is used by more than 13 million farmers worldwide to fight pests and nourish crops and strengthen them against microorganisms and extreme weather events, such as droughts and frosts.
  • White biotechnology. The industrial branch works to improve manufacturing processes, the development of biofuels and other technologies to make industry more efficient and sustainable.
  • Yellow biotechnology. This branch is focused on food production and, for example, it carries out research to reduce the levels of saturated fats in cooking oils.
  • Blue biotechnology. This exploits marine resources to obtain aquaculture, cosmetics and health care products. In addition, it is the branch most widely used to obtain biofuels from certain microalgae.
  • Grey biotechnology. Its purpose is the conservation and restoration of contaminated natural ecosystems through, as mentioned above, bioremediation processes.
  • Gold biotechnology. Also known as bioinformatics it is responsible for obtaining, storing, analysing and separating biological information, especially that related to DNA and amino acid sequences.

ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF BIOTECHNOLOGY

The benefits of biotechnology are tangible, but at the same time some warn of its possible adverse effects on the environment, health and ethics. The advantages of BIO are as follows:

  • It reduces CO2 emissions by 52 %, optimises the use of water and reduces waste and chemical processes thanks to techniques such as recombinant DNA.
  • It improves medical diagnosis, reduces infection rates, minimises the side effects of medications and favours progress in developing countries.
  • It favours healthy and sustainable agriculture — it provides more nutritious, toxin and allergen-free food — — it limits the use of pesticides and chemicals —.

Its main risks include:

  • The proliferation of laboratory foodscould end crop diversity. It may also affect the balance of ecosystems.
  • The risks include unforeseen allergies, poisoning of living organisms and modified bacteria escaping from a laboratory.
  • Cloning, the modification of the human genome and assisted reproduction are matters of ethical debate and social controversy.