What Is Biotechnology?

by ReAgent Chemicals

Biotechnology is a way of utilising biological and biomolecular processes to develop products that improve our lives. With biotechnology, we’re able to combine our understanding of microorganisms and living systems with our understanding of technology to develop things like pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, and hormones. 

Despite its futuristic name, biotechnology isn’t a concept that’s rooted in the modern day. It has been practised throughout time: using yeast to ferment grapes into wine, selective breeding, and making cheese, yoghurt, bread and beer out of microorganisms are all examples of early biotechnology. Modern biotechnology, however, goes beyond these traditional uses to include genetic engineering. Even still, all forms of biotechnology have a common goal: to improve our lives and the life of our planet. 

What Is The Purpose Of Biotechnology?

The main purpose of biotechnology is to gain a deeper understanding of biological processes, and then use these processes to create products that can potentially solve world issues and improve our day-to-day lives. Pharmaceuticals, for example, were only made possible through the use of biotechnology, as were detergents, textiles, and biofuels. In this way, biotechnology has an impact on every aspect our world, including:

  • Health
  • Agriculture
  • Food security
  • Energy production
  • Manufacturing techniques

Through the utilisation of microorganisms and technology, biotechnology is able to provide breakthrough products in all of these sectors, whether it’s finding cures for rare illnesses, reducing our carbon footprint, or identifying more efficient manufacturing processes. Biotechnology also serves a purpose in warfare, where it’s used to prepare for biological terrorist attacks by creating vaccines for weaponised pathogens.

scientist holding a red transparent pill with futuristic scientific air interface with chemical formulas and research data
The development of pharmaceuticals was only made possible through the use of biotechnology

What Do You Study In Biotechnology?

The subjects you study in biotechnology will range from basic biochemistry to computer science and everything in between: to pursue this subject, you need to have an in-depth understanding of how organisms and biological systems work in order to find ways to utilise them to create products or solve problems. That said, biotechnology is the practical application of several science disciplines, including:

  • Biochemistry
  • Genetics
  • Molecular biology
  • Embryology
  • Microbiology
  • Robotics 
  • Computer science

In addition to understanding how biological processes work, you’ll also need to be competent at implementing computer models of the biochemical processes and the substances involved. This is essential to creating analogs. For example, you need to understand and be able to study the complex folding patterns of proteins in venoms in order to use these venoms as painkillers.

Applications Of Biotechnology

Biotechnology has a wide range of applications, which include but are not limited to: processing food and beverages, developing pharmacological products, and treating chronic or genetic diseases. Here are the top six applications of biotechnology:

  1. Processing food and beverages

Since ancient times, humans have used forms of biotechnology to help improve their daily lives. Many of the earliest uses of biotechnology were probably discovered accidentally, and include things like baking, making cheese, deriving vinegar, winemaking, and brewing beer.

In a nutshell, the industrial scale of food and beverage production is an orchestra of biochemical reactions that is perfectly timed and accurately coordinated. In food processing, biotechnology is used to improve the overall taste, yield, and nutritional value of food. 

Biotechnology is used in a similar way in beverage production, where it can help to improve the quality and safety of drinks through the screening and selective im­provement of microorganisms, the development of waste treatment processes, and enhancing the overall fermentation and enzymatic processes.

  1. Fighting infections

Bacteria, protists, fungi, and viruses have always been around. While these microorganisms have many negative effects, humans have long been discovering their many uses. For instance, Alexander Fleming’s 1928 discovery of penicillin, the first true antibiotic, was an accidental result of his bacterial culture media getting contaminated by fungal spores of Penicillium rubens. The discovery of penicillin led to other significant breakthroughs in the fight against pathogenic bacteria. 

Biotechnologies have been used to identify and study the genetic material of viruses and bacteria in order to gleam on which diseases are caused by which agents, as well as how we can best fight against them. This incredible potential to resolve health problems has made biotechnology a fundamental tool in treating infectious diseases. 

  1. Developing vaccines

A relatively old example of biotechnology is vaccination, which was successfully demonstrated by Edward Jenner in 1796 when he inoculated a 13 year-old-boy with vaccinia virus (cowpox). As a result, the boy developed immunity to smallpox, and this paved the way for the eradication of smallpox on a global scale. 

More than two centuries later, the basic principles of immunisation remain the same, but the processes involved in researching, developing, testing, and approving new vaccines are now very sophisticated so as to ensure safety. However, the current COVID-19 pandemic brought an impetus for companies and governments to expedite the vaccination process through the use of advanced biotechnologies.  

  1. Genetic engineering

Biotechnology has become so advanced that we’re now capable of designing and reengineering life itself. But it’s not only through mere selective breeding that scientists are able to highlight certain desirable traits of agricultural crops and domesticated animals: it also comes down to the genetic level.

DNA can now be edited through a process known as gene splicing. With this, specific genes or gene sequences can now be inserted into the genome of other organisms in order to get the desired traits. This is commonly done in genetically modified agricultural crops to make them more resilient to diseases and pests, as well as to increase their nutrients.

Genetic biotechnology can also be used in identifying genetic diseases and designing drugs that can treat them. In the near future, it will even be possible to edit out defective genes and insert healthy genes in a developing human embryo, an advancement that has profound ethical implications.

  1. Creating new materials

Many biological materials are several times more efficient and stronger than synthetic materials. For instance, spider silk is at least five times stronger than steel per mass and volume ratio. It’s also several hundred times lighter than any synthetic fibre. If we could mimic the strength and lightness of spider silk, it could be used to create better bulletproof vests, parachutes, and airbags.

  1. Producing energy

Biofuels from plants and decaying biological materials are very useful applications of biotechnology. This is because they’re renewable and environment friendly sources of fuel. Research works in these areas can help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and, at the same time, improve the life of our planet. 

Genetic engineering concept
Advancements in biotechnology are to thank for genetic engineering, which is crucial for identifying genetic diseases and designing drugs

What Is Biotechnology In Medicine?

Biotechnology is widely used in medicine in various ways. For example, it’s used in treating endocrine-related diseases, such as diabetes. Further to this, many types of medicines, like insulin, were also developed, and are currently being developed with the help of biotechnology.

Gene therapy, genetic screening, and the treatments of some debilitating diseases also heavily rely on biotechnology. For example, the common prescription drug Levodopa is the most effective treatment for Parkinson’s disease. This is a natural chemical that is absorbed in the brain and converted to dopamine. But, without biotechnology, this treatment may never have been developed. 

What Is Biotechnology In Engineering?

Biotechnology in engineering is about the mimicking of living organisms or biological systems to solve engineering problems. For instance, when finding ways to design flying machines, the aerodynamics and wing structures of birds can be studied and translated into engineering blueprints.

What Is Forensic Biotechnology?

Forensic biotechnology is the application of biotechnology in solving crimes. It utilises various methods and techniques, such as fingerprinting, dental identification, anthropological bone analysis, serology, and DNA analysis.

Biological samples are collected from the crime scene and subjected to various tests in order to identify the origin and, possibly, the culprits. Any biological sample, such as blood, hair, skin or even more unique contaminants, can provide leads in solving crimes.

Doctor filling hypodermic needle with drugs
Biotechnology is responsible for the development of many medicinal products, like insulin and vaccines

What Are The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Biotechnology?

Just like other types of technology, biotechnology is a double-edged sword: it can be used for either good or evil. Whilst it can heal, it can also kill; and while it can help make our lives more comfortable, it can in the same breath cause severe environmental impacts. Here’s a summary of some of the advantages and disadvantages of biotechnology:

Aspects Advantages Disadvantages
Agriculture and livestock farming Higher yield Disruption of ecological niches
  Resistance to pests and diseases Overgrowth of some crops
  Better nutritional values of crops Resistance to antibiotics
  Lower prices of agricultural products May produce allergens
  Helps conserve resources  
Food processing Extends the shelf life of preserved food May contain carcinogens and allergens
  Improves the taste of food May disrupt normal hormonal balance of humans
  Higher nutritional value Immunity might be compromised because of GMOs
  Ethical treatment of animals (e.g. lab-grown meat may eventually reduce dependence on slaughtering animals for meat Ethical issues about genetically modifying organisms
Medicine Higher specificity and efficacy of medicines May increase antibiotic resistance of bacteria
  Gene therapy We are taking higher risks
  Improves genetic screening and diagnostics Potential genetic mutations
  Helps extend human lifespan
Materials science Develops new materials that use or mimic naturally occuring the materials produced by organisms New materials can be weaponised
  Helps in improving the efficiency of manufacturing process New materials may have unforeseen environmental impacts
  Creates alternative sources of energy like biofuels  
  Creates environmentally sustainable materials like biodegradable plastics and edible packaging  

Even if you don’t study or pursue biotechnology, this discipline has a direct impact on your daily life. While it has some accompanying risks, the prospects for the future are great and shouldn’t be ignored.

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