AN OVERVIEW OF BIOTECHNOLOGY
The advent of modern Biotechnology as a discipline in recent times has brought to light new prospects of increased productivity in virtually many fields, viz: agriculture, food science, environment, medicine and industry, This is of particular relevance to the developing countries where the population continues to explode while food production and economic resources lag behind.
Biotechnology is really not a single discipline. Although a major focus of this branch of study revolves around using molecular biology to bring about genetic engineering applications, biotechnology is multidisciplinary. It pieces together information from different fields such as botany, zoology, microbiology, biochemistry, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science and engineering. It even goes beyond science to involve economics, entrepreneurial study, philosophy and law.
Cutting-edge and innovative products and applications of biotechnology abound, not only products for direct human use but also applications in many areas of human endeavour. Many biotechnology companies in the USA are involved in a pharmaceutical production. Products ranging from recombinant insulin for the treatment of diabetes to several hundred drugs, vaccines and diagnostics are on sales with more than half of the new drugs being targeted at the treatment of cancer, AIDS, stroke and diabetes.
At present when a biotechnologist identifies a gene of interest, he inserts it into bacterial cells or mammalian cells grown by cell culture Here cells are grown in plates or flasks in specially defined liquid media. However, because only a limited number of cells can be grown in a small culture plate, the cells are transferred into large culture containers- bioreactors (fermenters). In bioreactors, the cells bearing the target DNA are mass-produced and used in various applications. It is said that in the near future genes may be routinely inserted into a man as gene therapy techniques are employed to cure various diseases. Organs for transplantation are being grown, which may not be rejected by the recipient body. Modern medical advances derived from the Human Genome Project will hopefully result in healthier lives and increased longevity.
Biotechnology has many sub-disciplines including Microbial Biotechnology, Agricultural Biotechnology, Animal Biotechnology, Medical, plant, microbial Forensic, Bioremediation and Regulatory Biotechnology as well as Bioinformatics.
Although conventional biotechnology employs microorganisms to make beer and wine from historical times, modern biotechnology has tremendously improved the old technology with a quantum leap resulting in a hundred-fold quantity of products, simplifying manufacturing and improving sanitation. Better micro-organisms and enzymes for making food types have been developed. Bioleaching of oil and mineral to improve mining efficiency is done with microbes. Microbes are also used to clone and mass- produce important proteins employed in human medicine.
In Agricultural Biotechnology with sub-discipline as plant and Animal Biotechnology, our minds go to genetically engineered, pest-resistant plants which do not need to be treated with pesticides. Crops are produced with higher protein or vitamin content than naturally endowed. Drought resistance, tolerance to cold temperature and greater food yields are now engineered into crops. Genetically modified (GM) foods have come to stay in most countries despite opposition from sceptics who say that "GM food is against nature". However, some people worry about their potential health effects.
We all know about the famous Dolly - a sheep created" by cloning in 1997 at Roslin Institute, Scotland. The public received this with surprise, excitement and reservation. Many other animals have been cloned since Dolly. Animal cloning has generated fear and concern about the potential for cloning human beings. However, scientists are interested in cloning organs that can be transplanted into human beings without fear of tissue rejection:
Medical biotechnology touches all perspectives of human medicine from preventive to diagnostic" to treatment. Numerous applications aimed at improving human health are now available. New information from the Human Genome Project reveals defective genes and helps scientists know more about genetic diseases such as sickle-cell anaemia, cancer and types of infertility. Stem cell techniques are creating ripples of controversy. Stem cells are young cells which can potentially develop into almost any type of cell in the body. They can be made to grow into human tissues and organs which are employed in transplantations, to replace defective ones. This use is still shrouded in ethical and legal controversy.
Forensic biotechnology has become an important aspect of law enforcement. DNA fingerprinting detects the unique DNA pattern of an organism. It is realized by using traces of tissue such as hair, blood or body fluid left behind at a scene of the crime. Courts all over the world now admit DNA fingerprinting as evidence to convict criminals and exculpate the wrongly accused persons. It is also used in resolving paternity cases to identify a child's real father.
To clean up polluted environments, Bioremediation (Environmental Biotechnology) comes into play. Many processes in Bioremediation rely on microbial biotechnology applications in that genetically modified bacterium and white-rot fungi are utilized to degrade and eliminate pollutants. This was effectively utilized in 1989 for the Exxon Valdez oil in Alaska in which strains of Pseudomonas were stimulated to accelerate bioremediation process.
Pharmaceutical companies must evaluate their drugs on the basis of spelt-out guidelines. In the same manner biotechnology products undergo rigorous Quality Assurance and Quality Control measures designed to ensure maximum safety and efficacy. Regulatory Biotechnology is really important in the biotech business. It not only regulates the final quality of products and ensures the consistency of product standards, but it is also concerned with patents, legal issues and proper methods of clinical trials in human patients.
Bioinformatics being the design, construction and use of software tools to generate store, annotate, access and analyze data and information relating to Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. Computer technology is however applied to manage and analyze biological data and information and conveying them in databases. It, therefore, links the areas of Bioscience and Computer science. The world wide web(www) is used extensively as a gateway website for Bioinformatics. With Bioinformatics search tools, diseases can be diagnosed, mutations can be detected such as deletion, insertion and DNPs etc. Precise genes, species and strain of organisms can be obtained hence organisms can be classified, genes mapped and functions can be determined or predictions made.