Biotechnology is a vast field of life sciences that derives its principles from the core subject of biology. This field of science involves developing products and services that can be derived from biological systems, living organisms and their derivatives for specific uses.
It is an interdisciplinary subject of biological sciences that involve other branches like molecular biology, bio-engineering, biomedical engineering, bio-manufacturing, etc.
This field of science is rapidly developing across the world as it taps into the resource potential of biological factors that play a key role to improve the current lifestyles and solve issues that require specialisation in the field of biology.
Biotechnology has found its application for over thousands of years and has brought innovation in various sectors like agriculture, medicine, therapeutics and environmental conservation. But it emerged as a separate field of study only in the 20th century.
While the first reference of biotechnology as a term used to define this spectrum of subjects is difficult to trace, it is widely accepted that Hungarian engineer Karoly Ereky coined this term in 1919. Most part of the 1900’s was spent in fighting wars and improving the engineering technology.
While emphasis was there in the field of biology, but it was largely overshadowed by the requirements of war machines. It was not until the late 20th century and the 21st century, which this sector saw a growth spurt in terms of R&D as well as industry, thereby improving its market and emerging as a leading sector for employment globally.
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History of Biotechnology
History of biotechnology spans over thousands of years until today. For effective understanding of the historical significance of biotechnology, it is divided into three eras- the ancient age, the classical age and the modern age. While there has been significant improvements in technology throughout the different ages, but biotechnology had always been utilised by human beings for their well-being in whatever era they had lived in.
The Ancient era can be attributed to the earliest humans who had started living in settlements and practised agriculture and domestication of animals. The very activity of cultivating crops is a biotechnological aspect. The early farmers had collected and experimented with various plants to find the strains which have a high yield and segregate them from the poor yielding strains.
Additionally, preparing organic fertilisers using the knowledge of various substances that helped improve crop quality is also affiliated to biotechnology. Not only plants, but animal rearing had also elements of biotechnology.
Selective breeding, cross-breeding and discovering high performing breeds of cattle and domesticated animals like horses, dogs, etc. from their original wild types helped them generate and utilise the best and product-specific species and strains for various purposes from tilling of lands, transport, guarding as well as meat.
The ancient era was succeeded by the Classical era which used the knowledge of ancient biotechnology to further develop the field. This era is of the period when humans started to define their community and social niches. During this time, alcohol consumption as a recreational and social activity was enjoying a widespread market.
Therefore various processes were being developed to improve the quality of fermentation of various fruits and grains to develop the finest quality of alcoholic beverage. In agriculture, via years of experimentation and experience, people had discovered disease resistance properties of various natural products as well as had introduced the concept of pest control and improving storage facilities of food.
Medicine and surgery also saw advancement as it had become a field of specialisation in itself thereby giving rise to the profession of doctors. During those times, a doctor was considered to make, store and administer medicines as well as perform surgeries.
Modern era of biotechnology can be attributed to begin from late 18th century. The development of the first microscope by Anton Von Leeuwenhoek gave rise to a whole new world of microorganisms and questioned age old theories about the origins of life. This was followed by one of the most novel discoveries in the field of medical science- vaccine.
Edward Jenner in 1796 had developed a cure for a deadly disease called small pox. Food technology was also revolutionised by the likes of Louis Pasteur who introduced pasteurisation, one of the earliest attempts of industrial preservation of beverages. Biotechnology was attributed to laboratorial sciences with dedicated equipment and spaces to conduct experiments.
The second half of the modern era indulges into the subject of genetics. Austrian monk Gregor Mendel in the late 1800’s had conducted the first experiments to determine the genetic factors of organisms and had integrated mathematics and statistics into biology. In the 1900’s, his work was rediscovered and along with his contemporary Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, became the basis of genetic studies.
The world wars also encouraged the medical research. One of the biggest discoveries was in the form of Alexander Fleming’s Penicillin, which laid the foundation of antibiotic studies. Following the wars, in 1953, Watson and Crick published the concept and structure of DNA, the fundamental genetic material of life that revolutionised the biotechnology sector.
New technologies like genetic-engineering, recombinant DNA technology, cross-linking, etc. emerged and have been responsible for all the present day agricultural, medicinal, pharmaceutical, healthcare, food-related and industrial products and services that we have today.
Aspects of Biotechnology
While there are various fields as mentioned in the previous sections on which biotechnology can be applied upon, but primarily, it can be divided into three major aspects. These are listed as follows-
Agriculture has benefited vastly from the extent of biotechnological advancement. Biotechnology has helped improve the quality of agricultural practices, increased yields and improve storage efficiency of agro-goods. In terms of quality, fertilisers have improved soil texture and nutrient composition of soil on which plants are grown. High yielding varieties (HYVs) of seeds as well as recombinant strains have made plants genetically resistant to pests and diseases. Bt-Cotton plant is one such example which is genetically resistant to the cotton bollworm pest.
Allied agricultural industries have also gained a lot from biotechnology. There has been significant improvement in fermentation and preservation practices, food science and technology, development of sterile and antiseptic techniques for food preservation. Introduction of single-cell proteins has made nutrition available to all at low costs. High grade animal meats as well as high yielding poultry farming have also been developed using cross-breeding. This has also brought improvement in Drought labour animals.
Pharmaceutical industry has benefited a lot from biotechnology. Innovation in drug discovery, antibiotics and improvement in their manufacturing has boosted the output in terms of quality as well as quantity. Neutraceuticals are emerging as the new and natural alternatives to conventional medicines with lesser side effects and higher efficacy.
Gene mapping has been becoming cheaper over the years with improvements in technology which enables doctors to identify possible genetic diseases and control it in early stages. New diseases are rapidly identified and remedial measures are taken to eradicate them.
Various manufacturing and processing units have undergone innovation. Other than food and pharmaceutical industries, various other fields like chemicals, petrochemicals, pants and dyes, plastic, etc. are where biotechnology finds its use. Microbes and their enzymes are utilised for degradation of polluting factors like plastics and oil spills thereby contributing to prevention of environmental pollution and promoting conservation.
The major impact is observed in the downstream processes of manufacturing units using metabolic engineering. Biotechnology is also utilised in generation of alternative sources of energy in the form of bio-diesel and biogas.
Applications of Biotechnology
With the broad extent in various fields and industries, biotechnology finds its application in numerous ways-
Medicinal and Diagnostic Applications
- There have been landmark advances in the therapeutic efficiency of treatments of chronic and genetic diseases like Diabetes, Hepatitis, Arthritis, Haemophilia, Bone Fractures and Multiple Sclerosis.
- Detection and diagnosis of life-threatening diseases like cancer, AIDS, cardiovascular diseases have become efficient and detection in early stages of the disease is possible.
- Lifestyle diseases alongside other diseases which are linked to the genetic makeup of an individual can now be mapped even before there is an onset of symptoms and through gene therapy that involves gene silencing, they can be prevented before they take effect.
- Pedigree analysis also helps identifying the risk of unborn children developing a familial disease thereby helping couples in family planning and preparing them beforehand to regulate the child’s health.
- Antibiotics and vaccinations have been a boon to the field of medicine as they have eradicated majority of the bacterial and fungal diseases from taking place.
Agricultural, Food and Industrial Applications
- Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) improved the quality and yield of food crops, cash crops as well as fruits and vegetables.
- Ornamental plants have also derived benefits as their industry has bloomed after biotechnology was used to improve the aesthetic value of these plants by genetic recombination and cross-breeding.
- Nutrient supplementation in the form of single cell proteins and biofortification which involves assimilating various nutrients like vitamins and minerals into a single food product.
- Strains of sunflower and soybeans have been developed to contain larger oil content which can be used to generate energy in the form of biofuels.
- Better breeds of animals being produced via gene mapping and cross-breeding.
- Manufacturing of improved fibres like Bt-cotton, spider silk, GM silkworm, etc.
- Antibiotics prevent undesirable growth in fermentation media during brewing followed by preservatives to prevent food and beverage spoilage.
- Utilisation of enzymes to improve reaction rate in formation of chemicals required for paints, dyes, plastic, etc.
- Improvised downstream processing.
- Biomarkers used to tag, monitor and control levels of harmful chemicals in environment.
- Bioenergy from biomass, biogas, biofuels and hydrogen reduce dependence on fossil fuels and prevent pollution.
- Bioremediation to clean toxic substances from environment like plastic using microorganisms.
- Biotransformation used to convert or supress toxic substances by using them in biological process, and transforming them into non-toxic by products.
Biotechnology in India
Biotechnology industry in India has grown considerably since the 1990’s. As the conventional science employments are facing saturation, more and more youth are opting to enter the biotech sector for better scope and employment. The Government of India had established the Department of Biotechnology in 1986 to publicly fund biotechnological projects and give a head start to the industry in India.
Of recent, a regulatory body named the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India has been proposed to govern the various activities, applications and products of biotech industry. Educational institutions are offering specialised courses in biotechnology starting from IITs, IISc, IISER, TIFR, to state universities and private ones too.
In the private sector, biotech and bio-pharma companies are present to cater to the employment needs. There are well established examples like Biocon, Bharat Serums and Vaccines Limited, Panacea Biotec and Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories. Under the Start-up India vision, many new biotech companies are emerging in the market with new technologies to offer at reasonable prices.
As of 2016, there are already over a thousand biotech start-ups that have registered themselves. Comparatively, another nation Australia, where this sector is blooming too, it has only 476 registered biotech companies. Furthermore, foreign biotech giants have also opened headquarters and manufacturing units in India, generating further employments.
Within a span of a decade, the Indian revenue of biotech industry has shot up from US$ 2 billion to US$ 11 billion as of 2007. The Indian biotechnology industry aims to become a US$ 100 billion industry by 2025. With further governmental assistance and improvised intellectual property norms in India, this goal can be achieved within this time period easily.
Biotechnology has come a long way and has evolved alongside other fields of sciences. There is no doubt that technological advancement in computers; machinery and equipment have contributed significantly in the growth of biotechnology in terms of enhancing our understanding of the biological world and utilising the biological resources for our benefits.
Food, energy and healthcare are one of the most sought after industries in the world. With the growing shortages and sky-rocketing prices of fuel, regular droughts and crop failures leading to food deficit and limited access to healthcare, India has a challenge to overcome and biotechnology is one of the most important tools that will help us cross these obstacles and develop the nation.
Therefore, growth in this industry will definitely open a whole new set of scopes and another path for holistic development of the socioeconomic conditions of India.