Biotechnology is the branch of science that uses living cells to develop products that have multiple applications. Biotechnology research has rapidly evolved with advancements in genetic engineering. Recently, modern biotechnology has been sub-divided into five branches, namely, environmental, human, industrial, plant, and animal, based on the type of application. Scientists have described biotechnology as a means to fight hunger and disease, reduce environmental contaminants, and minimize the ecological footprint.
Biotechnology. Image Credit: PopTika/Shutterstock.com
Scientists have been able to trace back the application of biotechnology, such as brewing beer and making cheese, several hundred years back. The rapid advancements in recombinant DNA technology and genetic engineering have been a boon in the evolution of biotechnological research. This article focuses on the different applications of biotechnology.
In medicine, biotechnology has been extensively applied in the development of many drugs, gene therapy, gene testing, immunology, and many other novel treatments. Genetic testing is used in forensics for identifying individuals, sex determination, newborn screening, etc.
Genetic tests also help determine mutations associated with rare genetic disorders such as sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and Huntington’s disease. Gene therapy is used to correct defective genes. Biotechnology is used for the development of various vaccines such as insulin, and hepatitis B. This technology is used in the development of advanced wound dressings, which are coated with chitosan.
Chitosan is a natural polymer with antimicrobial properties which is, generally, obtained from shrimp and crab shells. Biotechnology has increased the production of biopharmaceuticals and biological products using genetically modified microbes, fungi, plants, and animals.
Scientists have utilized genetic engineering to develop crops that are known as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). In this technology, scientists develop a new crop by incorporating genes that code for important characteristics such as tolerance to biotic and abiotic stress, for example, resistance to drought, flood, pest and pathogen, and herbicides.
In agricultural biotechnology, scientists splice the superior gene from one plant and incorporate it into another which lacks such characteristics but is economically important. GMO crops have been highly successful in Africa and the Middle East, owing to their unfavorable climate for crop production. This technology has also enabled farmers to obtain maximum yield from their fields with minimal administration of chemical fertilizers.
Bioremediation is one of the most important applications of biotechnology. This technology uses catabolic properties of microorganisms and plants to degrade, detoxify and restore contaminated soils and water. It also helps to treat greenhouse gases or other toxic gases emitted from industrial units. Microbes are also used to clear oil spills that pollute the ocean.
Environmental biotechnology is associated with the purification of wastewater, the management of solid wastes, and the cleaning up of sediment clean-up. In mycoremediation, fungi synthesize enzymes and acids which help to break down harmful contaminants. Therefore, biotechnology not only plays a dominant role in environmental cleanup and waste management but also improves methane recovery from landfills and other waste. It is also used in the production of organic fertilizers to sustain agriculture.
One of the most important applications of biotechnology is the production of biofuels. This is regarded as an alternative form of energy that is beneficial to the environment. Biotechnology can generate biofuels from waste products. Bacteria can also degrade sulfur liquor, a byproduct of the paper manufacturing industry, and produce methane. Methane is used as fuel for many industrial processes.
However, the application of biotechnology to the energy industry is not limited to biofuel production. It also helps in the recovery of 60 to 80% of oil in geological deposits, left in place by the oil industries. Previously, it was considered to be impossible to recover the site owing to technological limitations.
Scientists have also stimulated microbes to produce enzymes that can convert plant and vegetable waste into biodegradable plastics. Biotechnology is also associated with the development of smart materials. Some of the examples of smart materials are self-healing concrete, self-cleaning glass, and plants that can change their color in presence of an explosive.
Biotechnology is also used in the textile industry. It has been used in the production of warmer, stronger, wrinkle, and shrink-resistant fabrics. Further, it is used for the fine finishing of garments and fabrics. It also helps to improve dye uptake and absorbance of textiles and enhances their longevity.
Biotechnology is also involved with the production and modification of enzymes. These enzymes are used in the food and drink industry. The modified enzymes are used in making bread, syrups, cheese, meat tenderizing, etc. Biotechnology is involved with the infusion of nutrients into food products. For example, researchers have developed Golden Rice which contains beta-carotene.
Several other novel uses of biotechnology involve the modification of oilseeds to produce fatty acids for detergents. Further, genetically engineered tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, and safflowers can produce insulin which is under clinical trial. Scientists believe that if the clinical trials of edible vaccines become successful, they will be immensely beneficial, especially in developing countries.
Biotechnology in Space
Biotechnology has made tremendous contributions to space travel. It has enabled improved air and water quality.
Further, methanogenic bacteria can break down organic matter, e.g., excrement, and produce methane. This recycling of organic waste is extremely important because in space travel every available resource is essential.