Biotechnology Unraveled: Human Welfare, Better Health And Beyond

Posted on December 14, 2010 in unEarthed

By Vineeta Chawla:

As the name suggests biotechnology combines biology and modern technology for human welfare. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity defines biotechnology as: “Any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use.” Another name for it is genetic engineering.

Biotechnology uses products and raw materials from biological means and processes them by using technology from different spheres like chemical engineering, bio-process engineering, information technology, etc.

Opposed to common beliefs biotechnology is not a new branch of science, instead it has been practiced for ages. Through early biotechnology, farmers were able to select the best suited crops, having the highest yields, to produce enough food to support a growing population. Also specific organisms and organism by-products were used to fertilize, restore nitrogen, and control pests. Other uses include making curd, which uses bacteria, selectively breeding organisms. Development of antibiotics is a very important use of biotech. Most of these method involved selecting a final product with a better genetic make-up but these often led to the inclusion of undesirable characteristics. This led to research in this field and the establishment of biotechnology as a premiere and emerging field of science.

The applications of biotechnology are many and varied. They range from improving seed variety, making pharmaceutical products, innovations in the food sector and treating previously incurable diseases.

Biotechnology is more successful in treatment as compared to conventional methods because it works at the basic level of our body — the gene. It also provides a permanent solution decreasing dependence on medicines and injections. This makes treatment less cumbersome. The most common treatment here is gene therapy. It 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. But gene therapy faces many obstacles before it can become a practical approach for treating disease. Some these obstacles are gene delivery tools, high costs and limited knowledge of the functions of genes.

A major area of research in biotechnology is green biotechnology which refers to agricultural processes. This field is also the one in which most success has been obtained.

The aims in this sector are increasing Crop yield, reduce vulnerability of crops to environmental stresses, increased nutritional qualities, improve taste, texture or appearance of food, reduce dependence on fertilizers, pesticides and other agrochemicals and production of novel substances in crop plants. This helps in feeding the growing population of earth and better health even in our sedentary lifestyles. But this has its negatives, the biggest of these being the unknown effects of introduction of these varieties in the ecosystem.

Another big area for the biotech sector is manufacture of pharmaceutical products. Modern biotechnology can be used to manufacture existing medicines relatively easily and cheaply. It can also be used to make medicines more effective with less dosage. Biotechnology has made landmark breakthroughs in new medical therapies to treat hepatitis B, hepatitis C, cancer, arthritis, hemophilia, bone fractures, multiple sclerosis, and cardiovascular disorders.

Other than being hugely useful biotechnology is also hugely controversial. Religious sects are against biotechnology as they believe it interferes with the will of god. Many governments are against commercialization of biologically engineered products, the debate over Bt. brinjal is a recent example from India. Other issues include patenting of successful variants and other legal and ethical issues.

Biotechnology though very successful is still in its initial stages in India and has a long way to go and many barriers to overcome.

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