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NATURE AND SCOPE OF BIOTECHNOLOGY

Biotechnology includes all industrial processes mediated by living organisms at some step or the other. Microorganisms can be exploited for the production of industrially important biochemicals, like, various enzymes, pharmaceuticals, hormones, antibodies, which were earlier available only by sacrificing the animals. Biotechnology is also being used for a variety of crop plants and domestic animals improvement programmes throughout the world.

The word biotechnology is derived from two words-biology and technology, and is concerned with the exploitation of biological agents (e.g., microorganisms, cultured animal or plant cells)

or their components for generating useful products or for beneficial use by human beings, Although, the term biotechnology is of recent origin, man is employing microorganisms from the ancient times for making wine, vinegar, curd, leavened bread, etc., and it is known as old biotechnology. Production of the antibiotic, penicillin, by the fungus Penicillium notatum was discovered in 1930 by Alexander Fleming, and its commercial production began in 1944

Using the sophisticated recombinant DNA technology, man is able to modify many microorganisms and some macro-organisms for creating valuable and naturally nonexistent capabilities in them, and they are employed to generate valuable products; this field is called new biotechnology. Biotechnology has a marked influence on human welfare, which ranges from food processing, protecting the environment, to human health, and has led to the emergence of many biotechnology companies throughout the world, like Genetech Inc. (USA), Biogen Switzerland and USA) etc., which make use of the gene technology and, thus, 21st century would be the century of biotechnology. Some of the important areas in which biotechnology is making marked contributions are:

1.      Medicines

i.                    Development of Vaccines: Vaccines can be prepared from the animals by  introducing isolated antigens into the blood of animals; and in conventional methods separation of these antigens sometimes poses the risk of contamination and may be hazardous for health. Vaccine against many diseases have been produced by cloning the genes of immunogenic proteins in suitable bacteria, e.g., rabies, foot and mouth disease in cattle, typhoid, cholera, hepatitis B, malaria, etc.

ii.                  Valuable Drugs: Many of the drugs (e.g., insulin: for treatment of diabetes and interferons for the treatment of some tumour viruses) were obtained only by sacrificing the animal life. But, now such drugs can be manufactured in large quantities by cloning the corresponding genes in bacterial cells. A number of other proteins, like, blood clotting factor VIII (for treatment of haemophilia), human growth hormone (for treating hypopituitary dwarfism) etc., have been synthesized by using recombinant DNA technique.

iii.                Diagnosis of Diseases: For diagnosis of different diseases, biotechnology has provided very effective and sensitive tools, like monoclonal antibodies and DNA probes, which are produced by genetically engineered microorganisms. Monoclonal antibodies through serological tests require very small time, some minutes, as against the conventional methods, which sometimes may take several days, e.g., culturing of bacteria. DNA probes are even more sensitive than monoclonal antibodies and would take hours to test disease like, malaria, kala-azar, sleeping sickness, etc.

iv.                 Gene Therapy: The techniques of gene therapy to cure genetic diseases, e.g., Huntington’s chorea, cystic fibrosis, are in advanced stages of development.

v.                   Other Notable Achievements in the field of medical biotechnology are – birth of babies of specified sex by artificial insemination with X or Y chromosome-containing sperms prepared by sperm separation techniques, identification of parents or criminals using DNA fingerprinting which is a very accurate and reliable method and can be detected successfully from even blood or semen stains, hair roots, etc.

2.      Agriculture

i.            Cloning of Nitrogen Fixation (nif) Gene: Nitrogen is needed as a fertilizer for the growth of crop plants. Though, plenty of nitrogen is available in atmosphere (about 78% as nitrogen gas, but the crop plants cannot utilize it. There are some microbes that are capable of converting (fixing) this atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, which is used by the crop plants. Cloning of the nif gene from a N2-fixing bacterium, Klebsiella pneumoniae, is achieved in a non-N2-fixing bacterium, Escherichia coli, which conferred it the N2 fixation capacity. Efforts are also being made to change the genetic system of cereals (e.g., rice) so that they may have artificially introduced nif genes, making them able to fix atmospheric nitrogen.

ii.            Transfer of Resistance against Insects, Herbicides, Viral, Bacterial and fungal Pathogens : Insect-resistance gene bt2 from a bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, has been successfully attempted to develop transgenic plants, e.g., bt cotton, which are being field tested and may be released for commercial cultivation or are planted commercially. In tobacco, TMV (a virus)-resistance has been achieved through cloning of virus coat protein genes. Several examples are now available where genes imparting resistance against fungal pathogens (e.g. Phytophihora) have been transferred to many crop plants (e.g., potato). Glyphosate (a herbicide)-resistance gene from the bacterium Salmonella typhimurium was transferred to tobacco through the vector Agrobacterium tumefaciens (a bacterium).

3.      Industry

Microorganisms have been employed since several decades for the large scale production of a variety of biochemicals-ranging from alcohol to antibiotics (e.g., penicillin, streptomycin, erythromycin, etc.,) produced by various fungi, bacteria and actinomycetes as secondary metabolites, production of single cell proteins (SCP, total microbial biomass freed from contaminants, toxins, etc,) from bacteria, fungi or algae (e.g., Chlorella, Dabur Company is making Spirulina tablets by the name of “Sunova”) to supplement human food. Fuel in the form of biogas, produced mainly from cow-dung and other cheap substrates through microbial fermentation is quite popular in India.

4.      Environment

Bacteria are being utilized for detoxification of industrial wastes, degradation of petroleum and management of oil spills (e.g., Pseudomonas putida). The use of pesticides, which cause pollution, can be avoided by biocontrol of plant diseases and insect pests by using environment friendly viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc.

Biotechnology seems to have an unlimited commercial potential to generate an unlimited range of valuable and useful products. As a consequence, Government of India has constituted the National Biotechnology Board (NBTB) to encourage research activities in biotechnology. In 1986, Department of Biotechnology was created under the Ministry of Science and Technology. In addition, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) are also promoting research activities in this field.

5. Enzyme Technology

Enzyme technology utilizes purified enzymes for generating useful products and services, e.g., industrial processes, medicine, research (e.g., Taq DNA polymerase obtained from the thermophilic bacterium, Thermus aquaticus, is used in PCR), recombinant DNA technology, etc. Though, purified enzymes are costly, they do not produce any unwanted byproducts so that the purification of the product becomes easier. Most of the enzymes are used in food and detergent Industries. Sometimes, the byproducts produced by whole cells add to the quality of the product, e.g., wine and beer. Most of the enzymes are obtained from microorganisms (e.g. amylase from the bacterium Bacillus and fungus Aspergillus, rennet from the fungus Mucor miehei, etc.) as it is easier to grow them in the fermenters and to manipulate them genetically. Some enzymes are obtained from higher plants (e.g., papain from papaya latex, amylase from malted barley) and animals (e.g., rennet containing chymosin enzyme from the pancreas of calf).

6. Food and Beverages

Food industry is the largest industry in world and food technology includes improvement in taste, consistency, colour, nutrition, safety and preservation of food. Development in food preservestion methods have made many of the seasonal foods to be to be available all the year round. Fruits, vegetables, cereals, meats, etc. require some degree of processing, and the relatively bulky raw agricultural products are transformed into stable, convenient and palatable foods and beverages,

Fermented foods (e.g., bread, cheese, yoghurt, sauerkraut, soy sauce, tempeh, etc.,) and beverages (e.g., beer, wine, brandy, whisky, tea, coffee, cocoa, etc.,) result from the action of microorganisms or enzymes on a wide range of agricultural and industrial materials with desirable biochemical changes. Fermented foods were developed before recorded history and are usually more nutritious, more digestible, with improved flavour and toxicologically and microbiologically safer. Almost 90% of revenue from biotechnology comes from the fermentation products.

 QUESTIONS

  1. What is biotechnology? Discuss the applications of biotechnology in the field of environment and agriculture industry.
  2. Write an essay on the Nature and Scope of biotechnology’.
  3. Define biotechnology and explain the meaning of old and new biotechnologies.
  4. Comment on the multidisciplinary nature and the commercial potential of biotechnology.
  5. Discuss the scope and importance of biotechnology in promoting human welfare.
  6. Briefly describe the initiatives taken by the Indian Government in promoting biotechnology and discuss the commercial potential of biotechnological products in India.