Background Information on Biotechnology

Contrary to its name, biotechnology is not a single technology. It is a group of technologies that seeks to improve our lives by manipulating living cells and their molecules.

Biotechnology can be broadly defined as "using organisms or their products for commercial purposes."  Biotechnology has been practiced since the beginning of recorded history.  Baking bread, brewing alcoholic beverages, and breeding food crops or domestic animals all involve biotechnology. Recent developments in molecular biology have given biotechnology new meaning, new importance, and new potential.  It is “modern biotechnology” that has captured the attention of the public.  Modern biotechnology can have a dramatic effect on the world economy and society.

One of the biggest uses of modern biotechnology is in forensics and paternity testing. In criminal investigations, DNA from samples of hair, bodily fluids and skin at a crime scene are collected and compared using DNA fingerprinting technology with those obtained from the suspects. To establish paternity, DNA fingerprints of the mother, child and the alleged father are compared.

Another application of Biotechnology is the making of new drugs to cure diseases. The most widely used example of the production of insulin by inserting the human insulin gene into a harmless strain of E. coli bacteria.  This insulin can be purified and used to treat diabetes in humans. Also, gene therapy – altering DNA within cells in an organism to treat or cure a disease – is one of the most promising areas of biotechnology research. New genetic therapies are being developed to treat diseases such as multiple sclerosis, AIDS and cancer.

There are also applications for industry such us agriculture. Major genetic improvements have been made in crops. Scientists have the ability to insert genes that give the plants biological defense against diseases and insects, enrich the plants in many nutrients, and even enable crops to better withstand harsh conditions such as drought. Uses of biotechnology in animal breeding include the development of vaccines to protect animals from disease, the cloning of farm animals to select for desirable traits, and to increase the rates of growth and disease detection.

Benefits can also be seen in the environment, where insect-protected biotech crops reduce the need for chemical pesticide use. Genetically modified bacteria are also being used to clean up many pollutants in the environment, including the Valdez Oil Spill.

With the recent completion of the Human Genome Project, scientists have used biotechnology to determine the sequence of all 3 billions bases in our genome. This work is pivotal for determining the causes of disease as well as assessing potential treatments and cures. The use of personalized medicine, or pharmacogenomics, will become more commonplace in the near future.  DNA testing on humans will also help determine how closely we are related to other organisms as well a shedding light on the history of human evolution and the manner in which human ancestors settled different parts of the world.

The collection of such large amount of molecular data has spawned a whole new field called Bioinformatics. This exciting field fuses biological science and computers, allowing us to predict the 3D structure of DNA, protein, and other molecules, among others. 

In summary, modern biotechnology offers opportunities to improve product quality, nutritional content, and economic benefits. Biotechnology is changing the way plants and animals are grown, and the applications of biotechnology are so broad, and the advantages so compelling, that virtually every industry is using this technology.  Developments are underway in areas as diverse as pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, textiles, aquaculture, forestry, chemicals, household products, environmental cleanup, food processing and forensics to name a few. Biotechnology is enabling these industries to make new or better products, often with greater speed, efficiency and flexibility.