Biotechnology and its applications

Biotechnology and its applications

This article deals with ‘Biotechnology and its applications – UPSC.’ This is part of our series on ‘Science and Technology’ which is an important pillar of the GS-3 syllabus. For more articles on Science and technology, you can click here


What is Biotechnology?

Biotechnology is the use of biological organisms, processes or systems to manufacture products intended to improve the quality of human life. 

Traditional biotechnology or kitchen technology is as old as human civilization. It involves using bacteria and other microbes daily to prepare dairy products like curd, ghee, cheese and food preparation like bread.

The present age is the age of Modern biotechnology. The main feature of this technology that differentiates it from conventional biotechnology is that it involves changing the genetic material for getting new products with specific traits.

Presently, biotechnology is a billion-dollar business worldwide, wherein pharmaceutical companies, breweries, agro-industries and other biotechnology-based industries apply biotechnological tools for their product improvement.

Branches of biotechnology, based on their applications, includes:-

Blue Applied to marine & aquatic applications of biotechnology.
Green Applied to agricultural processes like selection and domestication of plants via micropropagation. 
Red Applied to medical processes like designing an organism to produce antibiotics.
White Industrial biotechnology is using an organism in creating useful chemicals.

Timeline

6000 BC – 3000 BC Bread making and production of alcoholic beverages.
1770 Antoine Lavoisier explained the chemical process involved in alcoholic fermentation.
1798 Edward Jenner produced a viral vaccine against smallpox.
1876 Louis Pasteur explained microorganisms’ role in fermentation.
1919 Karl Ereky coined the term ‘biotechnology’.
1928 Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.
1944 Avery–MacLeod–McCarty discovered that DNA is the genetic material.
1953 James Watson and Francis Crick discovered that DNA has a double-helical structure.
1973 Cohen and Boyer used Genetic Engineering / Recombinant DNA Technology.
1978 Human Insulin was produced. It was the first biopharma product.

Side Topic: DNA and RNA

DNA

  • DNADeoxyribose Nucleic Acid
  • It is found in the nucleus of all cells (prokaryotic and eukaryotic) along with some viruses.
  • DNA contains the genetic code. Hence, DNA is the hereditary material responsible for transferring traits from one generation to another.
  • It has a double-helical structure.

Structure of DNA

  • DNA is a polymer formed by the combination of millions of nucleotides (monomer). A nucleotide is composed of 3 components:-
    1. Sugar Molecule: Deoxyribose Sugar 
    2. Nitrogenous Base: They are of two types, i.e. (1) Purines (Adenine & Guanine) and (2) Pyrimidines (Cytosine & Thymine).
    3. Phosphate group.
  • Sugar and phosphate act as the backbone of DNA, while the nitrogenous base is placed at the centre and is linked by hydrogen bonds. The pairing always happens between purine and pyrimidine in a specific way 
    1. Adenine (A) links with Thymine (T)  
    2. Cytosine (C) links with Guanine (G)  
  • Each turn is 34 A° (3.4 nm) and consists of ten base pairs per turn.
Structure of DNA

RNA

  • As an exception, it acts as the transmission of inheritance in some viruses. 
  • It has a single-stranded structure.
  • It is also found in the Nucleus and is a polymer of nucleotide.
  • Nucleotides of RNA consist of Ribose sugar molecule to which is attached 
    • Phosphate group 
    • One of four nitrogenous bases:
      • Two purines (Adenine and Guanine)
      • Two pyrimidines (Cytosinevand Uracil).
  • Based on work, it is of three types
mRNA Messenger RNA RNA  which takes information from DNA to Ribosome
rRNA Ribosomal RNA Responsible for producing Ribosomes in the cell.
tRNA Transport RNA RNA which transports Amino Acid to Ribosomes in the cell

DNA vs RNA

  DNA RNA
Type of Sugar Deoxyribose Sugar Ribose Sugar
Nitrogenous Bases 4 i.e. Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thiamine 4 i.e. Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and  Uracil
Structure Double Helical Structure Single Stranded
Main Function Inheritance of characters Protein formation
Types It isn’t divided based on function It is of three types based on work

Applications of Biotechnology

1 . Medicine

1.1 Pharmacogenomics

  • The study of the impact of a person’s gene on response to the administered drugs is known as Pharmacogenomics. It involves pharmacology, i.e. the science of drugs and genomics, i.e. the study of functions of genes, to develop safe and tailored medications according to a person’s genetic makeup.

1.2 Regenerative Medicine/ Stem Cells Therapy

  • Stem cell therapy means using the stem cells or their derivatives to promote the reparative response of diseased or injured tissue.

1.3 Making Pharma Products

Biotechnology can be used to produce pharmaceutical products. E.g., Using genetically altered E. coli to produce synthetic Insulin. Previously, it was extracted from the pancreas of abattoir animals like cattle and pigs. But using this technique, a large quantity of pure Insulin can be produced at a fraction of the earlier cost.


1.4 Genetic testing

  • Genetic testing means the examination of DNA using the DNA Fingerprinting technique.
  • It scans the patient’s DNA for mutated sequences. 
DNA Fingerprinting

1.5 Gene therapy

Gene Therapy is used to treat genetic & acquired diseases (like Cancer & AIDS) by using normal genes to supplement or replace defective genes or bolster normal functions like immunity.

Gene therapy

1.6 Monoclonal Antibodies

  • The immune system of organisms creates Antibodies to fight against infections. Monoclonal antibodies are cloned artificially inside the lab from the antibodies produced inside our body in response to a particular infection. Thus, they mimic the natural antibodies.
  • Monoclonal Antibodies can treat diseases, which can be treated using an antibody. 
  • One can receive the antibodies either from the recovered patient or artificially infect the lab animal such as a mouse. These antibodies are then mixed with the cancer cell, known as Hybridoma, for rapid division and making similar antibodies in a short time. These antibodies when introduced in the body of an infected person, makes him capable of fighting the disease.  
  • Such therapies are expensive because of difficulty in extracting and cloning the antibodies. Along with that, it is a time consuming task.
  • Eg : 
    1. Trastuzumab for Breast cancer.
    2. REGEN-COV2 (cocktail of two monoclonal antibodies (Casirivimab and Imdevimab)) against Covid.
Monoclonal Antibodies

1.7 Recombinant Vaccines

  • Recombinant Vaccines are affordable vaccines for a variety of diseases like Rotavac for Diarrhea and Typbar-TCV for Typhoid.
  • These vaccines are of uniform quality with lesser side effects compared to conventional vaccines.

1.8 Recombinant Testing Kits

  • ELISA [Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay]: It is a technique to detect the presence or absence of a particular antigen or antibody in the body. Hence, it is used to determine whether a person is infected with a specific disease (like HIV) or not. 
  • RT-PCR (Reverse Transcription – Polymerase Chain Reaction): This technique synthesizes millions of identical copies of DNA of interest and identifies the presence of a pathogen’s DNA. It is used to diagnose TB, genetic diseases and Covid-19.

1.9 Biopharming

  • Biopharming is the production and use of genetically engineered transgenic plants to produce pharmaceutical substances for human beings. 
  • These are different from naturally available medicinal plants.
  • Examples of Biopharming include 
    1. Golden rice (to produce Vitamin A)
    2. Transgenic sheep producing human α-1-antitrypsin in their milk (whose deficiency cause Emphysema in humans).
    3. Tobacco can be genetically modified to produce therapeutic proteins, monoclonal antibodies and vaccines.

1.9 Other Medical Uses

  • Cyclosporin A produced by a fungus named Trichoderma polysporum is used as an immunosuppressant in organ transplantation.
  • Statins used to lower blood cholesterol is produced by yeast Monascus purpureus. 

2 . Agriculture

  • Biotechnology can increase crop yield by the production of Hybrid and Genetically Modified Varieties of the crop. 
  • Biotechnology can also be used to reduce the dependence on fertilizers, pesticides and other agrochemicals. E.g., the introduction of the Bt gene in the DNA of seeds can be used to produce a protein with insecticidal properties in the crops (BT Cotton, BT Brinjal etc., are based on this).
  • Biotechnology can also be used to reduce the vulnerability of crops to environmental stresses. Eg 
    1. At-DBF2 (Gene): This gene is extracted from a plant named Arabidopsis Thaliana. When inserted into tobacco & tomato cells, this gene makes them more resistant to stresses like salt, drought, cold, etc. 
    2. Samba Mahsuri: It is a hybrid variety of RiceIt has resistance to Blight and is rich in protein.
    3. Vivek 9: It is a hybrid variety of Maize. It is rich in protein and can be grown in hilly areas. 
  • Biotechnology can be used to improve the taste, texture or appearance of the food. It can also slow down the spoilage process so that fruit can ripen longer on the plant & then be transported to the consumer with a reasonable shelf life.
  • Biotechnology can be used to produce ‘Bio-fortified crops’ with a higher quantity of vitamins and micronutrients to fight malnutrition. E.g., Golden Rice contains the beta carotene gene, which helps in the synthesis of vitamin A.

Side Topic: Fortification of food vs Biofortification of food

Fortification

  • Food Fortification means deliberately adding micronutrients like iron, vitamins, zinc, iodine etc., in food.
  • Salt iodization started in Switzerland in the 1920s and was then adopted by the world is the first example of food fortification.
  • In 2017, FSSAI released standards and a logo (+F logo)  for all fortified packaged food.
  • In the Independence Day speech of 2021, PM Modi announced that fortified rice (fortified with iron, vitamins, zinc etc.) will be provided under government schemes like PDS and mid-day meals. This will help in addressing the challenge of malnutrition in India.

Biofortification

  • Biofortification is the process of use of agronomist practices or modern biotechnology to improve nutritional quality of food crops.
  • The aim is to increase nutrients in natural crop rather than manual addition during food processing.

3 . Bioremediation and Biodegradation

  • Bioremediation or Biodegradation is the use of natural or genetically modified microbes to degrade pollutants (pesticide or hydrocarbons) in the presence of oxygen. 
  • Examples include Pseudomonas putida (a GM organism that is used to clean oil spills and patented by Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty).
Bioremediation
  • Another microbe, Ideonella Sakaiensis is currently tried for recycling of PET plastics
Bioremediation and Biodegradation
  • Genetically Engineered Microbes like  Pseudomonas sp., Flavobacterium, Azetobacter etc. can degrade different pesticides

1.4 Animal Husbandry

  • Transgenic Animals: Earlier, selective breeding was used to improve the characteristics of livestock. But with the advancements in biotechnology, it is possible to introduce extra (foreign/exogenous) DNA into the gene to get the desired traits in animals (like increased milk or presence of certain nutrients in the milk of animals etc.)
Transgenic Animals
  • Cloning  allows for genetic replication of selected animals.  Cloning can also be used for conservation of endangered species.

5. Industrial Applications 

  • Biotechnology can be used to develop efficient techniques to reduce the environmental impact of industrial processes
  • E.g., By using Biocatalysts, the same chemical can be produced more economically & more environment friendly   


6. Biofuels

Biofuels are fuels derived from living organisms (plants, animals or microbes). The two most common bio-fuels are 

  • Bio-ethanol obtained from fermentation of sugars.
  • Bio-diesel obtained from trans-esterification of oil of plants like jatropha

Side Topic : Biogas 

  • Biogas is a mixture of various gases (primarily methane (63%) and carbon dioxide and hydrogen). It is obtained by the breakdown of organic matter (like cow dung or plant waste) in the absence of oxygen.  
  • Methane producing bacteria called Methanobacterium is used in this process. 
  • Biogas is devoid of smell and burns with a blue flame without smoke.
  • The excreta of cattle (dung) is called “Gobar”. Gobar gas is the special type of biogas formed by anaerobic decomposition of (only) cattle dung.
Biotechnology and its applications

7. Sewage Treatment

  • Due to the presence of organic matter and microbes in the Sewage, it shouldn’t be directly dumped into water bodies without treating in the Sewage Treatment Plants. 
  • In the Sewage Treatment Plants, Microbes (mass of bacteria floc) are allowed to grow in aerated water. They consume a major part of organic matter in the effluent and reduce the Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) in the wastewater
Sewage Treatment

8. Others

  • Bioplastics: Biotechnology can be used to make biodegradable plastics or bioplastics that can be broken by microorganisms (unlike normal plastic).
  • Xenotransplantation: It is the process of transplanting animal organs into humans to keep them alive. It was first tried in the 1980s when a baboon’s heart was transplanted into a baby in the US, but the baby died within a month as her body rejected the heart. Recently (in 2022), a pig’s heart was transplanted into a man. The pig was genetically engineered, so that the immune system of human fails to recognize that the heart is from some other species.
  • Food and beverage industry: Microbes, especially yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is used in the production of beverages like wine since time immemorial. 
  • Restoring the artefacts: Bacterias such as Desulfovibrio Vulgaris and P. Stutzeri, having bio cleaning properties, have been used in restoring artefacts by cleaning paintings, caves, chapels etc.
  • Blood Substitute: Biotechnologists are trying to synthesize artificial blood. This can bridge the gap between the need for blood for transfusion and available blood during accidents and disease outbreaks.
  • DNA Forensics: 
    • It involves the identification of possible suspects whose DNA may match proof remained at crime scenes
    • Acquitting those persons who are falsely accused of crimes. 

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