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Whenever one goes to a supermarket, he/she can see a variety of food products such as cheese, yoghurt, bread, nutraceuticals, washing powders and detergents, food processing ingredients like artificial sweeteners and flavours, food packaging material and the list goes on. All the aforementioned products use biotechnology at some point of time in their preparation. Given the wide variety of products involving biotechnology, ranging from food to packaging material to plastics to pharmaceuticals, a question that anyone would ask is- “What is biotechnology?”

What is Biotechnology?

According to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity Article 2, biotechnology refers to the use of living systems and organisms to develop or make products, or “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use. In simple terms, biotechnology is technology based on biology or in other words, it is the harnessing of cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products in order to improve the human lives and the health of the planet.

Biotechnology- A Peek into the Past

The term “Biotechnology” is believed to have been coined in 1919, but the use of living systems and organisms to make commercially useful products and processes for humans has been going on since time immemorial. Theoretically, agriculture represents the first form of biotechnological enterprise. With increasing population and size of fields, specific organisms and their by-products were discovered that could effectively fertilize crops and protect from pests. The earliest forms of industrial biotechnology can be attributed to large scale production of beer, wine and alcohol. Those age-old practices of brewing exist even today, where malted grains containing certain enzymes convert starch to sugar and then addition of specific yeasts produces beer.

As the centuries progressed, lactic acid fermentation and processes to produce curd and cheese were discovered and people started getting intrigued about the process of fermentation and the precise role played by the yeasts and bacteria. Louis Pasteur in 1857, was the first one to demonstrate that yeasts were the cause of fermentation. By the 20th century, there was a greater understanding of microbiology and microbial processes. In 1917, Chaim Weizmann first used a pure microbial culture for an industrial process, involving the production of acetone from corn starch using Clostridium acetobutylicum.

Biotechnology has had a tremendous influence on the growth of the pharmaceutical industry.  Alexander Fleming discovered the mould Penicillium in 1928. Florey and Chain purified the antibiotic compound formed by the mold to form penicillin. The subsequent years saw the discovery and purification of streptomycin, tetracycline, cephalosporins, griseofulvin and other antibiotics, isolated from microbes and fungi, being used in the treatment of bacterial infections like tuberculosis, plague, cholera, malaria, athlete’s foot and many more. The drugs synthesized in today’s world incorporate a lot of other aspects of biotechnology, apart from isolation and purification of compounds from microbial sources.

Biotechnology in the past 50 years – Modern Biotechnology

Modern biotechnology incorporates a wide variety of procedures and inputs from various disciplines of science, thereby increasing the complexity and making it multi-disciplinary. With the success of gene manipulation (for example, inserting a gene from one organism into the other) in the 1970s, research into “genetic engineering” or modification of the genes of an organism to create improved organisms, received a massive boost. This was followed up with industrial use of genetically modified microbes to produce bioplastics, improve production of alcohol, biofuels and increased use of microbes for bioremediation (as in case of oil spills). Genetic engineering is one such aspect of biotechnology that gained prominence after the 1970s or in the modern biotechnology era.

The advent of modern biotechnology has increased the amount of biological data that is being generated, processed and analysed. The massive improvements achieved, in terms of computing power, in the field of computer sciences also coincided with the burgeoning volumes of biological data being generated. Out of this synergy, the field of “bioinformatics” or the use of computational techniques for organization and analysis of biological data was born. Today, bioinformatics is heavily used in the pharmaceutical industry for identifying potential drug molecules, studying the interaction between potential drug candidates and proteins, analysing protein structures and determining functional interactions with other proteins.

The explosive growth in human population in the past two centuries has put the land resources under tremendous pressure, in order to feed the rising population. The earlier decades of the 20th century saw drastic reduction in forest cover in all parts of the world. The rise of genetic engineering saw increased experiments on introducing variety of traits in the crops, thereby tailoring them according to the climactic conditions (arid or wet) and other factors such as increased resistance to diseases and pests, improved yields, enhanced nutrient profiles and resistance to insecticides and pesticides.  Some of the success stories regarding genetically modified crops include Bt cotton (resistance to pests), Golden rice (Higher vitamin A concentrations in rice) and GM maize (resistance to pests). Despite the success of GM crops, there have been various debates and questions regarding the safety of the crops for human consumption, as in case of rice and eggplants. Another roadblock in the use of GM crops in different countries is the difference in regulations. Some countries ban or restrict them according to their regulations, whereas others permit them.

Modern biotechnology has innumerable applications in the field of medicine and healthcare. With the immense quantity of patient data being generated by various disciplines in modern biotechnology (bioinformatics, genomics, pharmacogenomics, drug discovery), “personalised medicine” is being touted as the future of healthcare. “Personalised medicine” involves customising drugs and drug combinations to suit one’s genetic makeup and minimise side-effects. Genetic testing is carried out today to determine the risks from inherited diseases. This has been possible only through improvement in testing protocols and identification of biomarkers. Modern biotechnology has also made the production of biopharmaceuticals possible in large quantities. A well-known example of this is engineering bacteria to produce human insulin.


Bioplastics is another area which has been made possible by modern biotechnology. Plastics have become an indispensable part of our everyday lives. The plastics we use today are derivatives of crude oil. Bioplastics are derived from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable oil, corn starch & microbes. Some examples of bioplastics include polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanoates and poly-3-hydroxybutyrate (similar to polypropylene). Use of bioplastics reduces the volume of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere during the production period as compared to plastics derived from petroleum. Bioplastics can also be modified to produce bio degradable bioplastics, thereby reducing the plastic waste in the environment.

Just as bioplastics can be used to replace petroleum-based plastics, biofuels can be used to replace diesel and gasoline in the transportation sector. There are regulations already in place that mandate a fuel mix of 90% gasoline and 10% ethanol. Bioethanol is produced from agricultural feedstocks such as sugarcane, corn and potato. However, the argument against the current ways of producing bioethanol includes the use of food crops and the requirement of a large area of arable land, leading to increased food prices. Cellulosic bioethanol offers an alternative as the feedstock is cellulosic fibres, which is easily available in plant waste.

Biotechnology, in the present day world, is advancing at lightning speed. New technologies and innovations are changing the world, but also creating regulatory hurdles with respect to intellectual property rights (IPR). The earliest IPR issue involving modern biotechnology or biotechnology over the last 50 years involved patenting of a genetically modified organism, created for bioremediation of oil spills. (“Diamond vs Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303 (1980). No. 79-139” United States Supreme Court). Over the years, the number of cases involving intellectual property rights in biotechnology have increased and the latest high profile case being the CRISPR patent war between two institutes in USA over rights to CRISPR (genome editing technology).

Biotechnology in Undergraduate Curricula

Biotechnology comprises a wealth of core biology disciplines which have become highly inter-disciplinary in nature. This poses a unique challenge for universities and colleges all around the world, regarding the development of a curriculum that encompasses important aspects of biotechnology. Generally, academic institutions consider biotechnology and biological sciences (in traditional terms, “biology”) as two distinct departments or fields, despite the innumerable connections between them. Most of the coursework in any academic curriculum at the undergraduate level for biotechnology or biological sciences has kindred subjects. Courses like Biochemistry, Microbiology, Genetics, Cell Biology, Molecular Biology, Structural Biology, and Bioinformatics are common for both, as they form the basis of whichever specialisation one wishes to take up, whether in industry or academia. The variability is seen in terms of applications, where students studying biotechnology are taught courses that have industrial applications (in the pharmaceutical industry, industrial synthesis of enzymes etc.) and the courses for biological sciences students are more oriented to the academic. Some of the examples of courses that may be offered to a student of biotechnology, but not biological sciences include:

  1. Bioprocess Engineering – The subject deals with design of equipment and the mathematics behind the extraction of bioproducts such as pharmaceuticals on an industrial scale.
  2. Bio robotics – It covers robotic design to emulate biological processes mechanically or chemically. For example, fabricating robots mimicking the movement of insect legs.
  3. Numerical Methods in Biology – This course involves applications of mathematical tools like linear algebra for quantification and analysis of biological data.

Common courses would cover the following aspects:

  1. Biochemistry – It is the detailed study of chemical processes taking place in the body. One can find answers to questions like “how is energy generated in the body”, with the help of this course.
  2. Microbiology – Microbiology tells you about the microscopic life present on planet Earth, their uses, their presence in the human body and how they help body homeostasis and diseases caused by them.
  3. Genetics – This topic gained prominence in the last 50 years, with the success of gene splicing experiments. Genetics deals with how information about physical attributes and other traits is passed on from one’s grandparents to parents to oneself and so on.
  4. Cell Biology – Cell Biology deals with structures and components of the structural and functional unit of life, a cell.
  5. Molecular Biology – Molecular Biology encompasses the chemical reactions and components of the cell at the level of molecules.
  6. Structural Biology – Structures of proteins, structure-function analysis of proteins and other small molecules like receptors is covered in structural biology.

Bioinformatics – Bioinformatics is application of informatics techniques on biological data. It deals with organizing and analysing large biological datasets for studying incidence of diseases in various different population sets, discovering potential drug candidates etc.

In a nutshell, the pace of advances in biotechnology points towards a bright future where improved diagnostics and personalized medicine shall be able to cure most diseases, crops shall be able to grow in multiple climatic conditions and enable us to solve the world hunger problem, use of biodegradable plastics for packaging to reduce the accumulation of plastics in the world, bio-robotics and bio-inspired products (DORIDE lamps) and many more new devices. Therefore, biotechnology has the capability to shape the world in the future.

Recent advances in biotechnology are helping us prepare for and meet society’s most pressing challenges. Here’s how:

Heal the world with Biotechnology

Biotech is helping to heal the world by harnessing nature’s own toolbox and using our own genetic makeup to heal and guide lines of research by:

  • Reducing rates of infectious disease;
  • Saving millions of children’s lives;
  • Changing the odds of serious, life-threatening conditions affecting millions around the world;
  • Tailoring treatments to individuals to minimize health risks and side effects;
  • Creating more precise tools for disease detection; and
  • Combating serious illnesses and everyday threats confronting the developing world.

Fuel the world with biotechnology

Biotech uses biological processes such as fermentation and harnesses biocatalysts such as enzymes, yeast, and other microbes to become microscopic manufacturing plants. Biotech is helping to fuel the world by:

  • Streamlining the steps in chemical manufacturing processes by 80% or more;
  • Lowering the temperature for cleaning clothes and potentially saving $4.1 billion annually;
  • Improving manufacturing process efficiency to save 50% or more on operating costs;
  • Reducing use of and reliance on petrochemicals;
  • Using biofuels to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 52% or more;
  • Decreasing water usage and waste generation; and
  • Tapping into the full potential of traditional biomass waste products.

Feed the world with Biotechnology

Biotech improves crop insect resistance, enhances crop herbicide tolerance and facilitates the use of more environmentally sustainable farming practices. Biotech is helping to feed the world by:

  • Generating higher crop yields with fewer inputs;
  • Lowering volumes of agricultural chemicals required by crops-limiting the run-off of these products into the environment;
  • Using biotech crops that need fewer applications of pesticides and that allow farmers to reduce tilling farmland;
  • Developing crops with enhanced nutrition profiles that solve vitamin and nutrient deficiencies;
  • Producing foods free of allergens and toxins such as mycotoxin; and
  • Improving food and crop oil content to help improve cardiovascular health.

Biotechnology in Agriculture

Biotechnology is frequently deliberated the similar with the biomedical investigate, but there are a group of other industries which take advantage of biotech method for studying, cloning and varying genes. We have turn out to be familiar to the thought of enzymes in our everyday lives and a lot of people are recognizable with the argument adjacent the use of GMOs in our foods. The agricultural industry is at the middle of that debate, but since the days of George Washington Carver, agricultural biotech has been producing innumerable new products that have the possible to alter our lives for the improved.

  1. Vaccines: Oral vaccines have been in the works for much existence as a likely solution to the increase of disease in immature countries, where costs are excessive to extensive vaccination. Hereditarily engineered crops, frequently fruits or vegetables, planned to carry antigenic proteins from transferable pathogens that will activate an immune reply when injected.
  2. Antibiotics: Plants are used to create antibiotics for both human and animal use. An expressing antibiotic protein in stock feed, fed straight to animals, is less expensive than traditional antibiotic production, but this practice raise many bioethics issues, because the result is widespread, possibly needless use of antibiotics which may encourage expansion of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strain. Quite a few rewards to using plants to create antibiotics for humans are condensed costs due to the larger quantity of product that can be produced from plants versus a fermentation unit, ease of purification, and condensed risk of contamination compared to that of using mammalian cells and culture media.
  3. Flowers: There is extra to agricultural biotechnology than just hostility disease or civilizing food quality. There is some simply aesthetic application and an example of this is the use of gene recognition and transfer techniques to improve the color, smell, size and other features of flowers.
  4. Biofuels: The agricultural industry plays a big role in the biofuels industry, as long as the feedstock’s for fermentation and cleansing of bio-oil, bio-diesel and bio-ethanol. Genetic engineering and enzyme optimization technique are being used to develop improved quality feedstocks for more efficient change and higher BTU outputs of the resulting fuel products. High-yielding, energy-dense crops can minimize relative costs associated with harvesting and transportation (per unit of energy derived), resulting in higher value fuel products.
  5.  Plant and animal reproduction: Enhancing plant and animal behavior by traditional methods like cross-pollination, grafting, and cross-breeding is time-consuming. Biotech advance let for specific changes to be made rapidly, on a molecular level through over-expression or removal of genes, or the introduction of foreign genes.
  6. Pesticide-resistant crops:  Not to be mystified with pest-resistance, these plants are broadminded of pesticides, allow farmers to selectively kill nearby weeds with no harming their crop. The most well-known example of this is the Roundup-Ready technology, urbanized by Monsanto.
  7. Nutrient Supplementation:  In an attempt to get better human health, mainly in immature countries, scientists are creating hereditarily distorted foods that hold nutrients known to help fight disease or starvation. An example of this is Golden Rice, which contain beta-carotene, the forerunner for Vitamin A manufacture in our bodies. People who eat the rice create more Vitamin A, and necessary nutrient lacking in the diets of the poor in Asian countries.
  8. A biotic strain confrontation:  A lesser quantity of than 20% of the earth is arable land but some crops have been hereditarily altered to make them more liberal of conditions like salinity, cold and drought. The detection of genes in plants in charge for sodium uptake has lead to growth of knock-out plants able to grow in high salt environments. Up- or down-regulation of record is usually the method used to alter drought-tolerance in plants. Corn and rapeseed plants, capable to thrive under lack conditions, are in their fourth year of field trials in California and Colorado, and it is predictable that they’ll reach the marketplace in 4-5 years.
  9. Manufacturing power fibers:  Spider silk is the strongest fiber known to man, stronger than kevlar (used to make bullet-proof vests), with an advanced tensile power than steel. In August 2000, Canadian company Nexia announces growth of transgenic goats that formed spider silk proteins in their milk. While this solved the trouble of mass-producing the proteins, the agenda was shelve when scientists couldn’t figure out how to spin them into fibers like spiders do.

Biotechnology in Medicine

Biotechnology finds many uses in medicine in areas of pharmacogenomics, pharmaceutical drug discoveries & production, and genetic testing/screening.

  • Pharmacogenomics:

Pharmacogenomics is a technology that helps in analyzing how the genetic makeup of an individual affects his/her response to drugs. Pharmacogenomics, a combination of pharmacology and genomics, helps us understand the influence of genetic variation on drug responses in patients by correlating gene expression or single-nucleotide polymorphisms with a drug’s efficacy or toxicity. This is useful for pharmacologists in developing effective means to optimize drug therapy with respect to the patient’s genotype to deliver maximum efficacy with minimal adverse effects. These approaches encourage personalized medicine, where drugs and their combinations can be optimized for each individual’s unique genetic makeup.

  • Pharmaceutical Drug Discoveries & Production:

Biotechnology has paved the way for not only the discovery and production of traditional small molecule pharmaceutical drugs but also drugs that are a product of biotechnology. Modern biotechnology facilitates the production of existing medicines relatively easily and cheaply. The application of biotechnology to basic science (for example through the Human Genome Project has also substantially increased our understanding of biology thereby leading to an increase in our abilities to develop new medicines to treat previously untreatable diseases.

  • Genetic Testing/Screening:

 Genetic testing can be used for the genetic diagnosis of vulnerabilities to inherited diseases and for determining a child’s parentage or in general a person’s ancestry. Genetic testing not only includes studying the chromosomes to the level of individual genes but also covers biochemical tests for the possible presence of genetic diseases, or mutant forms of genes associated with increased risk of developing genetic disorders. The changes in chromosomes, genes or proteins can be identified with the help of genetic testing. Normally, genetic testing is used to find changes that are associated with inherited disorders. The results of a genetic test can confirm or rule out a suspected genetic condition or help determine a person’s chance of developing or passing on a genetic disorder. Genetic testing is often accompanied with genetic counseling as it may open up ethical or psychological issues.

Industrial Biotechnology

Also known as white biotechnology in Europe, Industrial biotechnology is the application of biotechnology for industrial purposes and includes industrial fermentation. Industrial biotechnology involves the practice of using cells such as micro-organisms or components of cells like enzymes, to produce industrially viable products in sectors such as chemicals, food and feed, detergents, paper and pulp, textiles and biofuels, etc. Biotechnology uses renewable raw materials and it’s believed that it may contribute to lowering greenhouse gas emissions and help in moving away from a petrochemical-based economy.

Biotechnology for Environmental Purposes

Biotechnology can affect the environment, both positively and negatively.  The difference between beneficial biotechnology (e.g. bioremediation is to clean up an oil spill or hazardous chemical leak) versus the adverse effects originating from biotechnological enterprises (e.g. the flow of genetic material from transgenic organisms into wild strains) can be seen as applications and implications, respectively. An example of an application of environmental biotechnology is the cleaning up of environmental wastes; whereas the loss of biodiversity or the lack of containment of a harmful microbe is an example of environmental implications of biotechnology.

Hope this article served as an informative peek into Biotechnology. You can read all you need to know about Chemical engineering here. You can also learn more about organic chemistry here.  Keep reading Toppr for more such information. For more such articles follow us . All the best!

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