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Biotechnology Applications for the Twenty-First Century

written by: Emma Lloyd•edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski•updated: 8/20/2008

Biotechnology is more than genetic manipulation: in addition to work in human health and medicine, the field encompasses agriculture, bioremediation, and other disciplines.

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    Biotechnology has been a buzz-word for a couple of decades or more, but it’s something that we all hear a great deal about, without actually learning about the basis of the subject. What is biotechnology, anyway, and how is it used in our modern world?

    Biotechnology is, simply put, technology which uses or is based on biology. There are four main types of biotechnology applications: medicine, agriculture, biological engineering, and bioremediation. Each of these combines one or more different scientific disciplines, such as genetics, molecular biology, robotics, and chemical engineering, in a unique and highly practical mix of biological and physical sciences.

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    A (Very) Quick History of Biotechnology

    Surprisingly enough, ancient cultures began using biotechnology applications thousands of years ago, in practicing agriculture, and in using microorganisms to make bread, alcohol, and cheese. Of course, those early cultures had no idea they were practicing a sort of biotechnology, but those early uses have stayed with us for thousands of years, and are the basis of many new biotechnology applications.

    In the more recent past, the creation of antibiotics and vaccines, and the use of bacteria to produce chemicals such as acetone have been the result of biotechnological advances. And on June 16, 1986, the United States Supreme Court allowed General Electric scientist Ananda Chakrabarty to patent a genetically-modified microorganism, a ruling now regarded by some as the defining moment in which the field of modern biotechnology was born.

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    Four Branches of Biotechnology Applications

    There are four main areas in which biotechnology is used: medicine, agriculture, biological engineering, and bioremediation.

    In medicine, biotechnology applications encompass drug development, genetic testing, gene therapy, and pharmacogenomics. The latter is a relatively new field of study which deals with how genetic factors influence the way individuals respond to drugs. It is hoped that this type of study will help scientists optimize drugs, and perhaps even one day create entirely individualized treatment programs based on individual genetics.

    In agriculture, biotechnology expands on the way ancient cultures began developing and selecting for higher-yield crop species. However, modern biotechnology takes this field much further than ever before, using molecular genetic techniques to transfer genes between various different plants to enhance characteristics such as yield and disease resistance.

    Biological engineering is a subdiscipline within the field of engineering which focuses on a highly physical side of biotechnology. Applications include biomedical engineering, which applies engineering techniques and technology to the development of medical equipment and other items such as artificial body parts, including implants, prosthetic limbs and even artificial organs.

    Finally, there is bioremediation and biodegradation, two similar aspects of biotechnology which focus on developing technologies using microorganisms to clean up environmental contamination. Biological processes and microorganisms both play a significant role in the removal or conversion of many types of contaminants, and bioremediation seeks to take advantage of this fact to devise ways of removing them from the environment. One particular application attempts to genetically engineer microorganisms to enhance their ability to degrade hydrocarbons. This application would have significant benefit in cleaning up marine oil spills and in removing petroleum seepage, millions of tons of which enter the marine environment annually.