Biotechnology can be defined as the use of technologies that utilize living organisms, or products made from them, to create or modify products for specific purposes.
The most important applications of biotechnology are related to medicine, agriculture and food production as well as the environment.
Although humans have been using biotechnology for thousands of years, knowledge in various scientific areas ( microbiology, biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, nanotechnology, process engineering, etc.), and especially those related to the DNA molecule, has revolutionized the way manipulate organisms in order to obtain certain products and processes.
Thus, biotechnology today relies largely on recombinant DNA techniques.
- Production of insulin, medicines and vaccines;
- Manipulation of animals, such as pigs, for organ transplantation;
- Laboratory antibody production for patients with poor immune systems;
- Gene therapy to treat diseases such as cancer, neurological and cardiovascular, whose conventional treatments are not efficient;
- Stem cell research for therapeutic purposes.
In the farming:
- Production of inputs such as: fertilizers, seeds and pesticides;
- Plant breeding;
- Food Processing: Transgenic Foods
In the Environment:
- Bioremediation: Depending on the type of contamination and environmental conditions different techniques are used to reduce or eliminate environmental contamination;
- Bioconversion of agricultural waste;
- Production of biofuels from living organisms or plant residues;
- Production of biodegradable plastic from microalgae.
Advantage or Disadvantage?
Many of the applications of biotechnology may be of benefit to humanity, but they generate controversy about the consequences on human and animal health, environmental impacts and society. What is certain is that the long-term effects are not yet known.
Benefits of Biotechnology
- increased food production, driven mainly by the possibility of ending world hunger;
- possibility of obtaining more nutritious foods with medicinal properties;
- therapeutic techniques for diseases that are not yet curable, such as cancer, or whose treatments are not as effective;
- production of medicines, in addition to hormones, antibodies and insulin;
- use of bioremediation to control and eliminate contamination in environments;
- production of biodegradable products to reduce environmental pollution;
- intensive use of pesticides and inorganic fertilizers;
- interference with the balance of nature;
- breeding genetically modified (infertile) seeds;
- “genetic pollution” as the effects of the spread of genetically modified organisms on the environment cannot be controlled;
- Transgenic foods can cause allergies, among other damages.
- ethical issues related to the cloning of living things;
- stem cell production produces cellular stress that can result in premature aging, among others;
In ancient times, more than 4000 years ago, techniques of manipulation of living beings were already used to obtain certain results; For example, to make wine or bread, where the secret is fermentation by microorganisms, yeast.
Beginning of Microbiology
With the development of the various scientific areas, it became possible to understand how the processes happened. In the late nineteenth century, Louis Pasteur’s microbiological studies led him to uncover fermentation in his experiments.
DNA molecule discovery
With that, the spontaneous generation was no longer believed and attention turned to the study of microorganisms and cellular theory.
After much research, scientists James Watson and Francis Crick were awarded for discovering the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953.
Genetic Engineering and Recombinant DNA
The studies deepened and in 1978, 3 researchers again received the Nobel Prize for isolating restriction enzymes, the foundation for the recombinant DNA technique.
Read about the spontaneous generation in Origin of Life.
Biotechnology in Medicine
Biological research laboratory.
The initial objectives of modern biotechnology were for human and animal health issues , using microorganisms to make medicines .
However, the techniques have diversified a lot and currently there are many possibilities of application, both within medicine and in other areas.
It is noteworthy that research has begun to be developed in the laboratories of universities and public research centers, however, currently dominating research and the biotechnology market are private companies, large pharmaceutical and agro-chemical multinationals, so the values and objectives are many different.
Genetic Engineering Applications
There are many biotechnologies used in the health sector, which is one of the largest areas of application of these techniques in Brazil.
Animal organs are used for transplants, insulin production and vaccines using the recombinant DNA technique, among others for the production of drugs, hormones and antibodies.
Very controversial are the approaches related to cloning, which involves ethical issues.
Also, research has continued and reproductive cloning is applied in cases of infertility or to prevent future disease, and therapeutic cloning, which points to the treatment of degenerative diseases using stem cells, as an advantage of the method.
Biotechnology in Agriculture
Plant tissue culture.
In agriculture and food are the oldest uses of biotechnology, for example when humans cross plant species to obtain other varieties or improve crop results.
In the second half of the twentieth century a model developed mainly in the USA, internationalized through the so-called “Green Revolution”.
In Brazil, from the 1960s, following the mold of the “green revolution”, transformations began to occur in the rural environment, whose objective was: modernize the agricultural sector, increase the supply of food and export products, and even free labor to be used by the urban-industrial sector.
Imported technologies were implemented that were developed for temperate climates and not for tropical ecosystems , where the soils are very different and there is a greater biodiversity, as is the case of Brazil.
Genetically Modified (GMO) and Transgenic Organisms
The production of transgenics is a reality and the main modified foods are corn, soy and wheat.
The soybeans , for example, is present in most processed foods in various forms, is a major GM food and not always this information is passed on correctly to the consumer.
The use of environmental biotechnologies is a way of reversing a situation created by humans and that is growing worldwide, the production of waste from various human activities.
It is a way of using controlled natural processes to improve the condition of polluted ecosystems or to create biodegradable solutions that avoid pollution.
Thus, living beings are used: bacteria, algae, plants, among others, to perform processes such as fermentation, aerobic and anaerobic respiration and to control the pollution of a given environment.
Another interesting application of biotechnology in the environmental area is the reuse of agricultural residues (such as sugarcane bagasse) or solid effluents (sewage) for energy production and biofuels.