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What is Biotechnology?
Timeline of Biotecnology

 

Biotechnology is a multidisciplinary area that combines biology, chemistry and its processes, to be used in agriculture, pharmacy, food science, forest sciences and medicine. Probably the first person using this term was the Hungarian engineer, Karl Ereky, in 1919.


The following is an internationally accepted definition of biotechnology:

 

Biotechnology refers to every technological application making use of biological systems and living organisms or their derivatives to create or modify products or processes for specific purposes (Convention on Biological Diversity, Article 2. Use of Terms, United Nations. 1992).


 

The applications of biotechnology are numerous and they are usually classified as:

 

* Red biotechnology: refers to the utilization of biotechnology in medical processes. Some examples are the design of organisms to produce antibiotics, the development of vaccines and new medicines, the molecular diagnoses, the regenerative therapies and the development of genetic engineering to cure diseases using gene therapy.

 

* White biotechnology: (also known as industrial biotechnology) refers to the utilization of biotechnology in industrial processes. An example is the design of microorganisms to create a chemical product or the use of enzymes as an industrial catalyst, both to produce chemical products of interest or to destroy hazardous chemical pollutants (for example, using oxidoreductases). It is also applied to the textile industry for the creation of new materials such as biodegradable plastics, and the production of biofuels. Its main goal is the creation of biodegradable products that consume less energy, generating less waste during their production. White biotechnology tends to consume fewer resources than the usual processes used to produce industrial goods.

 

* Green biotechnology: refers to the utilization of biotechnology in agricultural processes. An example of that is the design of transgenic plants capable of growing in unfavorable environmental conditions or plants resistant to pests or diseases. It is expected that green biotechnology gives more environmentally friendly solutions than traditional methods of industrial agriculture. For instance, genetic engineering in plants in order to express pesticides, which eliminates the need for external application, as in the case of Bt corn. Whether green biotechnology products are less dangerous to the environment or not, is still a topic under debate.

 

* Blue biotechnology: (also known as marine biotechnology) refers to the applications of biotechnology in marine and aquatic environments. Even on an early phase of development it possesses promising applications to aquaculture, public health measures, cosmetics and food products.


 

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DNA is the abbreviation of deoxyribonucleic acid, which corresponds to the genetic material present in every single cell of living organisms. It is found in algae, plants, trees, animals, human beings and in some viruses (some of them contain RNA). The DNA is composed of 4 nucleotides (letters): adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T). This information is located in the nucleus of the cell and is known as genome.  A very interesting characteristic of DNA is that its fundamental bases are the same for all living organisms, what varies is the amount and the order of these letters in the nucleus. For instance, viruses have less amount of DNA compared to humans. Nevertheless, we must not rely so blindly on this pattern because a great number of plants have much more DNA than humans. The pine, for example, has approximately 9 times more DNA than humans.

 

There are different functions of the DNA; some sequences are responsible of genes. For instance, the insulin is a protein, whose information is inside its nucleus. Of the total DNA in an organism, it is believed that a 20% is functional, that is, it is involved both in the production of proteins and performance of some function of the cell. As long as a bigger number of genomes are decoded, it will be possible to know the functions of every part of the genome.


 

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Modern biotechnology is based on the manipulation of DNA of different organisms. By using tools of molecular biology (restriction enzymes) it is possible to take a small fragment of DNA from an organism (for example, from bacteria) and insert it in the DNA (genome) of a plant. This procedure is known as recombinant DNA technology (DNA from 2 or more sources).

 

The year 1970 marks another important stage: the start of enzymatic manipulation of genetic material and, therefore, the beginning of modern biotechnology, which still is the most recent evolution of genetic engineering. The procedures used are known as method of recombinant DNA or molecular cloning of DNA.


 

Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR, is a technique described by Kary Mullis in 1986 and used in molecular biology. Its aim is to obtain a great number of copies of a particular DNA fragment starting from the minimum; theoretically, only a single copy of that fragment is enough.

 

This technique is used to amplify a DNA fragment, after which it is much easier to identify viruses or bacteria responsible for diseases, identify people (paternity test) or conduct scientific research on amplified DNA.

 

Thanks to the studies of thermophylic microorganisms (microorganisms capable of surviving at high temperature), it has been possible to develop and improve this technique. Some of the microorganisms used are thermostable DNA polymerases extracted from Thermus aquaticus (Taq polymerase), Pyrococcus furiosus (Pfu), Thermococcus litoralis (Vent) and Thermus termophilus (Tth).


 

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The PCR consists of three steps repeated over several cycles (between 25 and 40). All the reactions begin with polymerase activation, submitted to a temperature of 94-95ºC for 5-10 minutes.

 

Subsequently, the steps to be repeated are:


1. Denaturation

At this step the DNA is denatured, that is, the two strands of the DNA molecule are separated. This step can be conducted of different ways, the most common is by heating the sample at 94-95ºC. The temperature chosen for denaturation depends, for example, on the G+C proportion of the strand, as well as on its length.

 

2. Annealing

At this step, a primer is hybridized by combining it with complementary sequences in the DNA template. In order to do that the temperature needs to be lowered to a range of 45-65ºC depending on the case. These primers will work as the boundaries of the DNA region to be amplified.

 

3. Extension/Elongation of the chain

At the final step, the DNA polymerase uses the DNA template to synthesize the complementary chain making use of the primer as the initial support for the synthesis of the new DNA. The temperature is raised to 72ºC for the DNA polymerase to reach its maximum activity, thus increasing exponentially the amount of DNA fragments amplified in the reaction.

 

Once all the cycles are completed, the process ends with 2 steps: first, a final extension/elongation of the chain at the optimum temperature of the DNA polymerase (usually 72ºC); and second, the reduction of the temperature to 4ºC.


 

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Genetic engineering is the recombinant DNA. It can be defined as the deliberate manipulation of genetic information for genetic analysis or improvement of a species. The rDNA has different applications; the most common is the determination of the function or role of a gene. For instance, if we assume that we have a DNA fragment that is responsible for the blue color in flowers, we can insert that fragment into a white-flower plant. If that plant produces blue flowers then it would be demonstrated that the blue color is present due to that gene. The most common applications of this technology can be found in pharmacology. A great number of proteins needed for the proper functioning of the human body (for example, insulin in the case of diabetics) can be mass-produced in microorganisms at a low cost. A great advantage is that using this method we can obtain highly pure insulin. Today more than 200 different types of medicines are being synthesized thanks to the rDNA.

 

According to French Anderson, a 60-year-old pioneer in genetic therapy, “today we have all the required scientific bases, but only in 5 or 10 years we will have the efficiency and security measures to carry out genetic transfers ethically”.

 

Genetic engineering has a great potential in the different areas of biotechnology. We just mentioned the case of insulin, a direct benefit to people. One of the application areas of biotechnology representing only the 10% of the rDNA technology is the agricultural sector. It is possible to obtain plants with a particular characteristic that can be useful, for example, plants that produce a toxin to insects (Bt corn), vitamin-enriched rice (golden rice), crops capable to act as bioreactors and produce medicines, etc. Since 1996, genetically modified plants are being commercialized worldwide, especially in the United States, Argentina, Brazil and Canada.

 

In the livestock sector, there are also some examples of genetically modified animals, the same as in the case of fish farming where there is plenty of research, although they are not commercialized yet.


 

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Transgenic food is the food derived from genetically modified organisms. Currently, there are four main GM crops: corn, cotton, soy and canola, whether it is for insect resistant or herbicide tolerance, and in some cases both. However, nowadays there are 22 different GM crops being commercialized around the world. Only to mention an example, there are cookies being produced using GM soybean. To date, no danger to human health due to the consumption of transgenic food has been confirmed.

 

Enzymes that are the result of rDNA technology are used in a number of processes of food production, as in the case of cheese; however, these products are not classified as transgenic.


 

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Yes, it is; especially in plants, where it has been performed for several years, as unlike animal cells, plant cells are totipotent, that is, that by using only one cell it is possible to regenerate an individual genetically identical to the plant it was extracted from. There are different methodologies to be used when cloning (or copying) an individual.


 

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Bioremediation is the process in which microorganisms are used to clean a contaminated site. The biological processes play an important role in the elimination of pollutants and biotechnology makes use of microorganism versatility to degrade such substances.

 

Marine environments are especially vulnerable because oil spills on coastal regions and the open sea are difficult to contain and the damage caused by them is difficult to mitigate. In addition, to the contamination caused by human activity, millions of tons oil enter the marine ecosystem through natural crevices. Despite its toxicity, a significant amount of this oil is eliminated through hydrocarbon degradation by microbial communities, especially hydrocarbonoclastic bacteria (HCB). Besides, there is a number of microorganisms that can be used to degrade oil, for example, Pseudomonas, Flavobacterium, Arthrobacter and Azotobacter. The 1989 spill of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in Alaska was the first case of bioremediation being used successfully on a large scale. Here, the bacterial population was stimulated by providing it with nitrogen and phosphorus, factors that the medium was lacking in.


 

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Bioinformatics is a multidisciplinary field that deals with biological problems using computer tools, making possible a fast organization and analysis of biological data. This field can also be called computational biology and can be defined as “the conceptualization of biology in terms of molecules and then the application of computer techniques to understand and organize the information related to these molecules on a large scale”. Bioinformatics plays a key role in a number of areas such as functional genomics, structural genomics and proteomics and is also one of the key parts of biotechnology and pharmaceutics.


 

Advantages

Some of the most important advantages of biotechnology are:

 

* Higher yield. Using GMOs the crop yield increases, providing more food for fewer resources and decreasing the number of crops that are rendered useless due to diseases, pests or environmental factors.

* Reduction of the use of pesticides. Every time a plant is modified to become resistant to a pest we are helping to reduce the use of pesticides associated with pathogen control, which are responsible for causing serious damage to the environment and human health.

* Nutritional improvement. Using biotechnology we can introduce additional vitamins and proteins into food products, as well as reduce allergens and natural toxins. We can also work on the production of plants that can survive in extreme environments, which would help countries with less availability of food.

* Improvement in the development of new materials.

 

 

Risks

No risk from a GMO on the market has been confirmed to date. This has been possible due to comprehensive studies carried out on GMOs. The area responsible for these analyses is biosafety.

 

The analyses conducted have 2 main objectives: determine that there is no risk for both environment and people’s health. In order to do that, it is necessary for the GMO to undergo a stepwise evaluation process at the different stages of production. For instance, if a new GM petunia that has fluorescent yellow flowers is produced, the plant must be phenotypically identical to the unmodified petunia, except for the color of its flowers. Then, the product must undergo a field evaluation, out of the greenhouse but on a small scale, to determine whether there is an impact on the environment. At this stage, the studies are very detailed, from pollen dispersion (to individuals of the same or another species) to studies of rhizosphere (soil and bacteria living in it), in order to determine possible changes.

 

If the product was meant for human consumption, then there are more analyses to be conducted, for example, verify that no toxic substances or proteins causing an allergenic response will be generated, or that the chemical composition of the plant will remain unmodified.


 

DNA: is the basic chemical structure of heredity. It is composed of one molecule that has the shape of a double helix, which is made up of 4 nitrogenous bases (adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine), phosphate groups and sugars. The DNA is located in the cell nucleus but can also be found in some cytoplasmic organelles such as mitochondria and chloroplasts.


Bacterium: is a microorganism composed of a single cell that has no nucleus. This type of primitive organism belongs to the prokaryotic group.


Cell: is the smallest unit containing all the characteristic of a living being. It is made up of a nucleus where the hereditary material (DNA) is located and a cytoplasm containing different organelles that perform varied functions (energy and protein production, substance storage, etc.)


Breeding: mating between two individuals of the same species to reproduce.


Cultivate: a type of plant that needs to be cultivated under specific conditions and that possesses particular characteristics.


Enzyme: a protein that promotes or activates a chemical process without modifying or destroying itself. A very special variety of enzymes are restriction enzymes; these are synthesized by some bacteria as the result of the invasion of an unknown DNA (for example, DNA of some viruses attacking these bacteria). These enzymes select and regroup the unknown DNA into small fragments, thus preventing the infection.


Spice: an aromatic substance used as condiment (for example: cinnamon, pepper, vanilla, etc.).


Species: taxonomic classification of a group of individuals that can naturally mate (and produce fertile offspring) and possess similar characteristics.


Fermentation: process by which enzymes of some bacteria and yeasts transform complex organic substances into simpler substances such as alcohol, lactic acid and gas.


Gene: structural and functional hereditary unit which is transmitted from parents to children through the gametes (ova and spermatozoons in the case of humans and other animals). It is a DNA fragment that carries the actual and precise instuctions to produce a specific protein.


Generation: group of all the contemporary living organisms belonging to a single species.


Genetics: science that studies heredity, in other words the transmission of traits from a living being to its offspring.


Heredity: transmission of biological traits from parents to children.


Yeast: unicellular fungus that can intervene in fermentation precesses.


Improvement: procedures utilized to obtain plant or animal offspring with better characteristics than the parents.


Microorganism: a microscopic organism. In this classification are also included fungi, bacteria and viruses.


Molecule: is the smaller portion of an element or compound containing its chemical identity. It is the combination of two or more atoms.


Selection: screening and choice of individuals with desirable characteristics (for example, higher grain production) to be the parents of the next generation.


 



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