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What is biotechnology?


"Biotechnology" may sound like a complicated word. However, if we analyze its parts the meaning becomes clear. Bio means life, and biology is the study of living beings. The term technology refers to tools or techniques used to manufacture or produce something. Then, if we put it all together, biotechnology could be defined as the tools and techniques that use living organisms or their components to get a product.


The living organisms involved in these techniques are microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, yeasts), plants and animals. And what we get are food, medicines and other products really useful for human beings in particular and the environment in general.


In fact, humankind has been resorting to biotechnology for thousands of years, but in the past this fact was simpler than today- for example, bacteria and yeast used to make yogurt, cheese, bread, wine, cider, etc. These techniques are still in use, but nowadays biotechnology has developed other, more modern tools to get new products.


How does biotechnology work?


Scientists work on genetic material or DNA from organisms. Genes can be found in every cell of any living being, and they would be like "recipes" that make an organism the way it is. Genes are pieces of DNA, and contain the information that determines body characteristics and functions. For example, genes determine eye color, wing shape, flower color and many more features.


What can a researcher do with these genes? Such things as transferring a gene from one individual to another. Why do this? If an organism is equipped with some beneficial feature lacking in others, this trait can be transferred from one to another in order to improve it. The so "transformed" organism is called transgenic or recombinant -as it has combined genetic material from another organism.


How can biotechnology help?


A great deal of biotech products has already been made available, and many more are under research. In general terms, it can be said that nowadays biotechnology is applied to: improve the growth of crops used for food, contribute to environmental care and cleanliness, produce more nutritious foods that contribute to health, obtain new drugs and vaccines, manufacture products for different industries… and many more different uses.


Some specific cases


Currently thanks to biotechnology we can obtain disease-resistant or herbicide tolerant plants such as soybean, corn and cotton, or plants that produce their own insecticides like maize and cotton. This not only benefits crops as they obviously grow much better, but also helps the environment by reducing the amount of chemicals needed to control pests. Moreover, biotechnology can improve plant varieties in a future, as well as production efficiency in cultivated areas, which will reduce the area required and the impact in producing each piece of food, thus helping to safeguard the spaces with their natural biodiversity still intact.


Biotechnology in Animal and Human Health


Biotechnology is present in Medicine and Animal Health, being part of both diagnosis and disease treatment. Biotechnology has changed the concept of Health, heading us towards an increasingly personalized medicine. This means that treatments can be "custom-made" for everyone, so we will heal more effectively. More and more drugs found at our homes are biotechnological in origin.


But ... When did Biotechnology start in Medicine?


After the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick molecular biology as we know it today started to develop, which has made possible to discover many different genes, determine their function in our body and study their involvement in how diseases develop.


Thus, Human Genome sequencing has marked a turning point in the history of medicine by allowing the study of the genetic basis of disease - 80% of adult diseases have a genetic basis plus some influence of environmental factors and thousands of genes have shown to be related to disease development.


In fact, research on genes and proteins (genomics and proteomics), genetic engineering and their applications have facilitated the development of new tools that are revolutionizing disease prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure.


Biotechnology applications in Medicine – Five areas


  • Molecular diagnostics: an example of this can be found in those serological tests used to detect infectious agents like HIV, AIDS virus or hepatitis virus. Today it is also possible to diagnose genetic diseases from individual DNA.
  • New drugs: Biotechnology enables us to design and produce new proteins useful in treating many diseases like infections, diabetes, cardiovascular disorders and even cancer. In this area it has to be mentioned the so-called "personalized medicine", that is, the study of individual patients’ response to drugs based on their genetic profile, which is growing in importance every day.
  • Vaccines: Biotechnology and genomics have changed the way vaccines are designed (traditionally they were made inactivating virus and injecting them afterwards), thus obtaining more effective and safer vaccines that help to fight a greater number of diseases. Now vaccines are produced by means of genetic engineering from isolated molecules that induce the immune response.
  • Advanced Therapies:
    • Gene therapy: It consists in introducing genetic material into human cells to prevent or cure certain diseases. But the technique is still under development and these therapies raise many questions regarding its effectiveness and safety, so at present no drug obtained from gene therapy has been approved for use.
    • Regenerative cell and tissue therapies: It is worth mentioning cell therapy, which involves the use of stem cells to treat diseases, and tissue engineering, which involves growing biological substitutes of organs and tissues in a laboratory. An example of tissue engineering is the production of lab-grown skin to treat burn victims.

Biotechnology in Agriculture and Environment


Since the time when in the Middle East humankind began to use agriculture to get food 10,000 years ago, crops have been continuously improved. Today, we have enriched fertilizers, which help increase crops productivity around the globe, as well as pest- or drought-resistant plants, and we even can use different organisms or products derived from them to dispose of environmental contaminants.


In the last decade, transgenic plants, ie those created from an original plant with some property adjustment at DNA level through genetic engineering techniques, have become prominent because of their ability to produce crops that are more efficient and profitable at a production, nutritious and economical level, and more environmentally friendly.


Spain is currently the European country with the largest area of ​​biotech crops, ranking fourteenth worldwide. From this point of view, and taking into account an understandable social concern which demands more information, several questions can be raised:


All improvements in the vast majority of current crops have been achieved as a result of human efforts, and transgenic plants are no exception. A seedless watermelon is as natural as pest-protected, genetically modified maize, since in both cases it has been possible to use natural resources in their production due to the great advances in human knowledge.


Is GM food safe for the environment?


Genetically modified crops are approved only after the European Food Safety Authority and from now on each country, always applying scientific criteria, have concluded there exist no evidence of risk to human health or the environment in consuming foods and feed obtained from its cultivation and use. The risk assessment does not finish the moment they are approved, but continues in the way of monitoring plans to accompany the marketing of these varieties. Among the benefits agricultural biotechnology provides to our society and the environment we can find ecological footprint reduction due to a lower use of pesticides, a 17.2% decrease in the Environmental Impact Coefficient, as well as climate change mitigation by reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.


Some outstanding examples of the benefits of biotechnology applied to agriculture:


  • Vaccine production in plants, as it is the case with tetanus or malaria
  • Production of crops that enhance consumers’ health. For example, the "golden rice" with vitamin A to help people suffering from severe vitamin deficiency diseases, dry fruits that do not cause allergies, etc ...
  • Plant varieties coming in colours impossible to get without biotechnology

Industrial Biotechnology


A living organism is a kind of machine capable of processing compounds and transforming them into energy, biomass and other byproducts. What makes this machine so special is that both raw materials and final products are integrated into natural cycles in which waste is recycled and so the cycle ends without waste pollutants.


Industrial biotechnology takes advantage of these particular features in living organisms when it comes to producing chemicals and other products with the least possible environmental impact in a highly effective way.


Some of the most cutting edge products used in industrial biotechnology:


  • Enzymes, protein-like molecules responsible for decreasing or increasing chemical reactions rate. Their industrial use began in the 80's, when they were introduced as bleaching agents and degreasers in detergents. Today there exist over 159 industrial enzymes being applied in nearly every sector, from food (e.g. pectinase to remove the pulp from juices, amylase as dough enhancer or galactosidases to get dairy products) to textiles (cellulase as a substitute for stonewashing, laccase and catalase for bleaching processes or proteases for leather tanning).
  • Biofuels, fuels produced from biological raw material (corn, sugar cane, orange peels, etc.). The constant rise in oil prices, speculations about the global reserves shortage and the threat of climate change, all of it contributes to the important role played by biofuels. Countries like USA, Brazil, Germany, already have a significant production of biofuels due mainly to a combination of mandatory measures.
  • Biomaterials, which are the materials synthesized from biological material or through methodologies based on biological systems. An example of these biomaterials is the spider silk-based tissue that is expected to revolutionize the fields of clothing and sports and military equipment (ie, bulletproof vests), since spider silk is one of the most resistant, flexible and lightweight materials known, five times stronger than steel and six times lighter, and so elastic that it is said that a spiderweb made from fibers as thick as a finger, could stop a passenger plane in midair without being torn.

Food Biotechnology


Food biotechnology is definitely the oldest of all biotechnologies. The first people to use biotechnology 7,000 years ago were the Sumerians, who produced food such as beer, wine, bread, yogurt and cheese making use of a type of bioprocess- fermentation.


Fermentation is a biotechnological process carried out by different yeasts and microorganisms in anaerobic environments -anaerobic means "in the absence of air", lacking oxygen -, so it is an incomplete oxidation process. Bacteria, microorganisms and yeasts feed on some kind of natural component and proliferate changing the composition of the initial product. In the case of the yeasts involved in bread fermentation, they require the presence of sugar or glucose as this provides food and allows them to grow bigger. The same happens with alcoholic fermentation in beverages like wine or beer.


Food biotechnology makes use of techniques and processes that resort to living organisms or substances to get or modify food, to improve the plant or animal it has been obtained from, or to develop microorganisms involved in its production.


One of the best known examples in food biotechnology is the case of probiotics and prebiotics.


Probiotics are living microorganisms that, added to food, stay active in the intestine and produce important physiological effects. Taken in the adequate amount they are really beneficial- they contribute to the balance of intestinal bacterial flora and boost the host immune system. They are able to cross the gastrointestinal tract and be retrieved alive from the feces, but they also adhere to the intestinal mucosa.


Prebiotic foods unlike probiotics (live microbial compounds) are generally non-digestible carbohydrates. These prebiotics stimulate the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria in our intestinal flora.


Food biotechnology also takes part in the control and safety of the food we usually eat. Through DNA analysis we can tell for example if the content in a tuna can is actually tuna fish and no other product.