Biotechnology has applications in four major industrial areas, including health care (medical), crop production and agriculture, non food (industrial) uses of crops and other products (e.g. biodegradable plastics, vegetable oil, biofuels), and environmental uses.
For example, one application of biotechnology is the directed use of organisms for the manufacture of organic products (examples include beer and milk products). Another example is using naturally present bacteria by the mining industry in bioleaching. Biotechnology is also used to recycle, treat waste, clean up sites contaminated by industrial activities (bioremediation), and also to produce biological weapons.
A series of derived terms have been coined to identify several branches of biotechnology, for example:
Red biotechnology is applied to medical processes. Some examples are the designing of organisms to produce antibiotics, and the engineering of genetic cures through genomic manipulation.
A rose plant that began as cells grown in a tissue culture
Green biotechnology is biotechnology applied to agricultural processes. An example would be the selection and domestication of plants via micropropagation. Another example is the designing of transgenic plants to grow under specific environmental conditions or in the presence (or absence) of certain agricultural chemicals. One hope is that green biotechnology might produce more environmentally friendly solutions than traditional industrial agriculture. An example of this is the engineering of a plant to express a pesticide, thereby eliminating the need for external application of pesticides. An example of this would be Bt corn. Whether or not green biotechnology products such as this are ultimately more environmentally friendly is a topic of considerable debate.
White biotechnology, also known as industrial biotechnology, is biotechnology applied to industrial processes. An example is the designing of an organism to produce a useful chemical. Another example is the using of enzymes as industrial catalysts to either produce valuable chemicals or destroy hazardous/polluting chemicals. White biotechnology tends to consume less in resources than traditional processes used to produce industrial goods.
Blue biotechnology is a term that has been used to describe the marine and aquatic applications of biotechnology, but its use is relatively rare.
The investments and economic output of all of these types of applied biotechnologies form what has been described as the bioeconomy.
Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field which addresses biological problems using computational techniques, and makes the rapid organization and analysis of biological data possible. The field may also be referred to as computational biology, and can be defined as, "conceptualizing biology in terms of molecules and then applying informatics techniques to understand and organize the information associated with these molecules, on a large scale." Bioinformatics plays a key role in various areas, such as functional genomics, structural genomics, and proteomics, and forms a key component in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sector.
In medicine, modern biotechnology finds promising applications in such areas as
genetic testing; and
DNA Microarray chip -- Some can do as many as a million blood tests at once
Main article: Pharmacogenomics
Pharmacogenomics is the study of how the genetic inheritance of an individual affects his/her body’s response to drugs. It is a coined word derived from the words “pharmacology” and “genomics”. It is hence the study of the relationship between pharmaceuticals and genetics. The vision of pharmacogenomics is to be able to design and produce drugs that are adapted to each person’s genetic makeup.
Pharmacogenomics results in the following benefits:
1. Development of tailor-made medicines. Using pharmacogenomics, pharmaceutical companies can create drugs based on the proteins, enzymes and RNA molecules that are associated with specific genes and diseases. These tailor-made drugs promise not only to maximize therapeutic effects but also to decrease damage to nearby healthy cells.
2. More accurate methods of determining appropriate drug dosages. Knowing a patient’s genetics will enable doctors to determine how well his/ her body can process and metabolize a medicine. This will maximize the value of the medicine and decrease the likelihood of overdose.
3. Improvements in the drug discovery and approval process. The discovery of potential therapies will be made easier using genome targets. Genes have been associated with numerous diseases and disorders. With modern biotechnology, these genes can be used as targets for the development of effective new therapies, which could significantly shorten the drug discovery process.
4. Better vaccines. Safer vaccines can be designed and produced by organisms transformed by means of genetic engineering. These vaccines will elicit the immune response without the attendant risks of infection. They will be inexpensive, stable, easy to store, and capable of being engineered to carry several strains of pathogen at once.
Computer-generated image of insulin hexamers highlighting the threefold symmetry, the zinc ions holding it together, and the histidine residues involved in zinc binding.
Most traditional pharmaceutical drugs are relatively simple molecules that have been found primarily through trial and error to treat the symptoms of a disease or illness. Biopharmaceuticals are large biological molecules known as proteins and these usually target the underlying mechanisms and pathways of a malady (but not always, as is the case with using insulin to treat type 1 diabetes mellitus, as that treatment merely addresses the symptoms of the disease, not the underlying cause which is autoimmunity); it is a relatively young industry. They can deal with targets in humans that may not be accessible with traditional medicines. A patient typically is dosed with a small molecule via a tablet while a large molecule is typically injected.
Small molecules are manufactured by chemistry but larger molecules are created by living cells such as those found in the human body: for example, bacteria cells, yeast cells, animal or plant cells.
Modern biotechnology is often associated with the use of genetically altered microorganisms such as E. coli or yeast for the production of substances like synthetic insulin or antibiotics. It can also refer to transgenic animals or transgenic plants, such as Bt corn. Genetically altered mammalian cells, such as Chinese Hamster Ovary (CHO) cells, are also used to manufacture certain pharmaceuticals. Another promising new biotechnology application is the development of plant-made pharmaceuticals.
Biotechnology is also commonly associated with landmark breakthroughs in new medical therapies to treat hepatitis B, hepatitis C, cancers, arthritis, haemophilia, bone fractures, multiple sclerosis, and cardiovascular disorders. The biotechnology industry has also been instrumental in developing molecular diagnostic devices than can be used to define the target patient population for a given biopharmaceutical. Herceptin, for example, was the first drug approved for use with a matching diagnostic test and is used to treat breast cancer in women whose cancer cells express the protein HER2.
Modern biotechnology can be used to manufacture existing medicines relatively easily and cheaply. The first genetically engineered products were medicines designed to treat human diseases. To cite one example, in 1978 Genentech developed synthetic humanized insulin by joining its gene with a plasmid vector inserted into the bacterium Escherichia coli. Insulin, widely used for the treatment of diabetes, was previously extracted from the pancreas of abattoir animals (cattle and/or pigs). The resulting genetically engineered bacterium enabled the production of vast quantities of synthetic human insulin at relatively low cost, although the cost savings was used to increase profits for manufacturers, not passed on to consumers or their healthcare providers. According to a 2003 study undertaken by the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) on the access to and availability of insulin in its member countries, synthetic 'human' insulin is considerably more expensive in most countries where both synthetic 'human' and animal insulin are commercially available: e.g. within European countries the average price of synthetic 'human' insulin was twice as high as the price of pork insulin. Yet in its position statement, the IDF writes that "there is no overwhelming evidence to prefer one species of insulin over another" and "[modern, highly-purified] animal insulins remain a perfectly acceptable alternative.
Modern biotechnology has evolved, making it possible to produce more easily and relatively cheaply human growth hormone, clotting factors for hemophiliacs, fertility drugs, erythropoietin and other drugs. Most drugs today are based on about 500 molecular targets. Genomic knowledge of the genes involved in diseases, disease pathways, and drug-response sites are expected to lead to the discovery of thousands more new targets
Genetic testing involves the direct examination of the DNA molecule itself. A scientist scans a patient’s DNA sample for mutated sequences.
There are two major types of gene tests. In the first type, a researcher may design short pieces of DNA (“probes”) whose sequences are complementary to the mutated sequences. These probes will seek their complement among the base pairs of an individual’s genome. If the mutated sequence is present in the patient’s genome, the probe will bind to it and flag the mutation. In the second type, a researcher may conduct the gene test by comparing the sequence of DNA bases in a patient’s gene to disease in healthy individuals or their progeny.
Genetic testing is now used for:
Carrier screening, or the identification of unaffected individuals who carry one copy of a gene for a disease that requires two copies for the disease to manifest
Prenatal diagnostic screening
Presymptomatic testing for predicting adult-onset disorders
Presymptomatic testing for estimating the risk of developing adult-onset cancers
Confirmational diagnosis of symptomatic individuals
Some genetic tests are already available, although most of them are used in developed countries. The tests currently available can detect mutations associated with rare genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and Huntington’s disease. Recently, tests have been developed to detect mutation for a handful of more complex conditions such as breast, ovarian, and colon cancers. However, gene tests may not detect every mutation associated with a particular condition because many are as yet undiscovered, and the ones they do detect may present different risks to different people and populations.
The bacterium E. coli is routinely genetically engineered.
Several issues have been raised regarding the use of genetic testing:
1. Absence of cure. There is still a lack of effective treatment or preventive measures for many diseases and conditions now being diagnosed or predicted using gene tests. Thus, revealing information about risk of a future disease that has no existing cure presents an ethical dilemma for medical practitioners.
2. Ownership and control of genetic information. Who will own and control genetic information, or information about genes, gene products, or inherited characteristics derived from an individual or a group of people like indigenous communities? At the macro level, there is a possibility of a genetic divide, with developing countries that do not have access to medical applications of biotechnology being deprived of benefits accruing from products derived from genes obtained from their own people. Moreover, genetic information can pose a risk for minority population groups as it can lead to group stigmatization.
At the individual level, the absence of privacy and anti-discrimination legal protections in most countries can lead to discrimination in employment or insurance or other misuse of personal genetic information. This raises questions such as whether genetic privacy is different from medical privacy.
3. Reproductive issues. These include the use of genetic information in reproductive decision-making and the possibility of genetically altering reproductive cells that may be passed on to future generations. For example, germline therapy forever changes the genetic make-up of an individual’s descendants. Thus, any error in technology or judgment may have far-reaching consequences. Ethical issues like designer babies and human cloning have also given rise to controversies between and among scientists and bioethicists, especially in the light of past abuses with eugenics.
4. Clinical issues. These center on the capabilities and limitations of doctors and other health-service providers, people identified with genetic conditions, and the general public in dealing with genetic information.
5. Effects on social institutions. Genetic tests reveal information about individuals and their families. Thus, test results can affect the dynamics within social institutions, particularly the family.
6. Conceptual and philosophical implications regarding human responsibility, free will vis-à-vis genetic determinism, and the concepts of health and disease.
Main article: Gene therapy
Gene therapy using an Adenovirus vector. A new gene is inserted into an adenovirus vector, which is used to introduce the modified DNA into a human cell. If the treatment is successful, the new gene will make a functional protein.
Gene therapy may be used for treating, or even curing, genetic and acquired diseases like cancer and AIDS by using normal genes to supplement or replace defective genes or to bolster a normal function such as immunity. It can be used to target somatic (i.e., body) or germ (i.e., egg and sperm) cells. In somatic gene therapy, the genome of the recipient is changed, but this change is not passed along to the next generation. In contrast, in germline gene therapy, the egg and sperm cells of the parents are changed for the purpose of passing on the changes to their offspring.
There are basically two ways of implementing a gene therapy treatment:
1. Ex vivo, which means “outside the body” – Cells from the patient’s blood or bone marrow are removed and grown in the laboratory. They are then exposed to a virus carrying the desired gene. The virus enters the cells, and the desired gene becomes part of the DNA of the cells. The cells are allowed to grow in the laboratory before being returned to the patient by injection into a vein.
2. In vivo, which means “inside the body” – No cells are removed from the patient’s body. Instead, vectors are used to deliver the desired gene to cells in the patient’s body.
Currently, the use of gene therapy is limited. Somatic gene therapy is primarily at the experimental stage. Germline therapy is the subject of much discussion but it is not being actively investigated in larger animals and human beings.
As of June 2001, more than 500 clinical gene-therapy trials involving about 3,500 patients have been identified worldwide. Around 78% of these are in the United States, with Europe having 18%. These trials focus on various types of cancer, although other multigenic diseases are being studied as well. Recently, two children born with severe combined immunodeficiency disorder (“SCID”) were reported to have been cured after being given genetically engineered cells.
Gene therapy faces many obstacles before it can become a practical approach for treating disease. At least four of these obstacles are as follows:
1. Gene delivery tools. Genes are inserted into the body using gene carriers called vectors. The most common vectors now are viruses, which have evolved a way of encapsulating and delivering their genes to human cells in a pathogenic manner. Scientists manipulate the genome of the virus by removing the disease-causing genes and inserting the therapeutic genes. However, while viruses are effective, they can introduce problems like toxicity, immune and inflammatory responses, and gene control and targeting issues.
2. Limited knowledge of the functions of genes. Scientists currently know the functions of only a few genes. Hence, gene therapy can address only some genes that cause a particular disease. Worse, it is not known exactly whether genes have more than one function, which creates uncertainty as to whether replacing such genes is indeed desirable.
3. Multigene disorders and effect of environment. Most genetic disorders involve more than one gene. Moreover, most diseases involve the interaction of several genes and the environment. For example, many people with cancer not only inherit the disease gene for the disorder, but may have also failed to inherit specific tumor suppressor genes. Diet, exercise, smoking and other environmental factors may have also contributed to their disease.
4. High costs. Since gene therapy is relatively new and at an experimental stage, it is an expensive treatment to undertake. This explains why current studies are focused on illnesses commonly found in developed countries, where more people can afford to pay for treatment. It may take decades before developing countries can take advantage of this technology.
Human Genome Project
DNA Replication image from the Human Genome Project (HGP)
The Human Genome Project is an initiative of the U.S. Department of Energy (“DOE”) that aims to generate a high-quality reference sequence for the entire human genome and identify all the human genes.
The DOE and its predecessor agencies were assigned by the U.S. Congress to develop new energy resources and technologies and to pursue a deeper understanding of potential health and environmental risks posed by their production and use. In 1986, the DOE announced its Human Genome Initiative. Shortly thereafter, the DOE and National Institutes of Health developed a plan for a joint Human Genome Project (“HGP”), which officially began in 1990.
The HGP was originally planned to last 15 years. However, rapid technological advances and worldwide participation accelerated the completion date to 2003 (making it a 13 year project). Already it has enabled gene hunters to pinpoint genes associated with more than 30 disorders