Background (Encyclopedia of Global Warming)
Biotechnology, broadly defined as the use of living organisms to achieve human goals, has been practiced for thousands of years, beginning with the domestication of animals and plants. Common usage of the word, however, typically refers to the use of more modern biological methods to achieve many of the same purposes. The term “modern biotechnology” is sometimes used to differentiate contemporary techniques from “traditional biotechnology.” Biotechnology is not a scientific discipline in itself but is intrinsically interdisciplinary in nature, involving mostly agricultural techniques at first but more recently combining principles from such fields as microbiology, cell and molecular biology, and engineering.
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Traditional Biotechnology (Encyclopedia of Global Warming)
Biotechnology likely had its origins between 10,000 and 9,000 b.c.e. with the domestication of dogs in Mesopotamia and Canaan. The first crops, consisting of emmer wheat and barley, are thought to have been grown in this same area within the following millennium. At this time, human impact on the environment was minimal, but as more land was subsequently cleared for the growing of crops and the raising of livestock, the potential to affect the environment increased, albeit slowly. These changes accelerated following the Industrial Revolution, as technologies to modify Earth’s landscape were developed. By the late twentieth century, deforestation had become a major contributor to atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, while livestock could be linked to the release of methane, another greenhouse gas (GHG), into the atmosphere.
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Modern Biotechnology (Encyclopedia of Global Warming)
Around this time, biotechnology underwent a revolution, as scientific breakthroughs made it possible directly to change the genetic makeup of virtually any organism. Prior to this, desired changes in organisms had been achieved primarily by selective breeding, a slow and inexact process. Beginning in the 1970’s, techniques were developed that allowed scientists to cut deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) at specific sequences (using purified enzymes called restriction enzymes) and to “glue” these liberated fragments of DNA into a vector that allowed for their propagation in host organisms, thereby cloning a particular gene or DNA segment. This entire process, sometimes called recombinant DNA technology, greatly altered both the speed and the scope of the genetic changes that could be achieved in targeted organisms.
It was not long before recombinant techniques had led to such outcomes as the production of human insulin in the bacterium Escherichia coli (in 1982), the production of ethanol from sugar in the same microbe (in 1991), and the development of a tomato that instead of ripening on the vine, could be picked while green and artificially ripened following shipping (in 1992). These particular examples represent the first applications of modern techniques in three different categories of biotechnology: medicine (“red biotechnology”), environmental science (“white biotechnology”), and agriculture...
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White Biotechnology (Encyclopedia of Global Warming)
Sometimes called “environmental biotechnology,” white biotechnology has been utilized to clean up contaminated environments via bioremediation, prevent the discharge of pollutants from currently existing industries, and generate resources in the form of renewable chemicals and biofuels. While bioremediation comprises a large portion of white biotechnology, it is the latter two goals that are expected to have the greatest effects on alleviating global warming.
Recognizing that the burning of fossil fuels is not likely to disappear overnight, scientists have been focusing on the use of living organisms to remove a portion of the CO2 found in fossil fuel emissions. One candidate for this removal is phytoplankton, microscopic aquatic algae. Phytoplankton are known to make up a large portion of the carbon fixation cycle, which converts CO2 (or dissolved carbon) to sugars during photosynthesis, thereby removing it from the surrounding environment. In nature, phytoplankton eventually die and sink to the bottom of the ocean, removing the carbon from circulation, if only temporarily on a geological timescale.
The burning of fossil fuels has the undesirable consequence of releasing into the environment carbon that has been sequestered in this way for millions of years, adding to the “new” carbon that is released from the burning of biomass. Experiments have been performed in which effluents from power plants were...
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Biofuels (Encyclopedia of Global Warming)
The fermentation of crops to obtain ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, was first performed in Egypt around 4000 b.c.e., although it was not known at the time that the process was being carried out by microscopic yeast. The purpose of such fermentation, however, was the brewing of alcoholic beverages, not the production of fuel. It was not until the energy crunch of the 1970’s that ethanol began being mass-produced for fuel from either corn or sugarcane, the former conversion being practiced primarily in the United States, with the latter being most prevalent in Brazil. Brazil subsequently emerged as one of the few success stories regarding biofuels, as a result of the somewhat unique situation of having its sugarcane-growing centers in close proximity to its main population centers. This served to reduce shipping costs, while processing costs were contained by using the residual cane waste, or bagasse, as fuel for the processing plants.
In the United States, where the price of ethanol is more closely linked with the price of oil by the increased costs of processing corn and shipping ethanol to major population centers, debate continues on whether its production as a fuel is economically viable. It has been argued that any fuel that directly competes with food crops will result in increased food prices and ultimately lead to the expansion of farming, so that CO2 emissions could actually experience a net increase as a result of U.S. corn...
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Context (Encyclopedia of Global Warming)
Throughout the years, humans have used the living things around them to meet their basic needs, as well as to achieve various other purposes, slowly changing these organisms through selective breeding in order to cause them to be better suited for their desired application. Achieving human purposes has not always had a positive effect on the environment, with the domestication of both plants and animals being responsible for steadily releasing large amounts of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. It has only been fairly recently that humans have acquired the motivation and the technology to begin to address some of these detrimental changes. The ability to change organisms rapidly via recombinant DNA technology may hold the promise of engineering organisms to clean up the environment and to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. Although still in its early stages, compared to biotechnology aimed at alleviating medical problems, environmental biotechnology is emerging as one possible solution to the threat of global warming.
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Further Reading (Encyclopedia of Global Warming)
Evans, Gareth M., and Judith C. Furlong. Environmental Biotechnology: Theory and Application. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. Explains carbon cycles in phytoplankton, as well as detailing the organism’s potential use in reducing the CO2 emissions of power plants. Describes Rudolf Diesel’s use of plant oil in his engine.
Kircher, Manfred. “White Biotechnology: Ready to Partner and Invest In.” Biotechnology Journal 1 (2006): 787-794. Gives the history of different “colors” of biotechnology, along with the relative levels of venture capital invested in them.
Scragg, Alan. Environmental Biotechnology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Defines biotechnology, including white biotechnology, giving a historical perspective. Explains the concept of CO2 neutrality. Contains extensive discussion of various biofuels.
Tollefson, Jeff. “Not Your Father’s Biofuels.” Nature 452 (February, 2008): 880-883. Describes a patent for ethanol-producing E. coli. Details the competition between crops for food and crops for fuel, the cost of shipping ethanol in the United States, and the use of cellulose for ethanol production.
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Background (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
Modern biotechnological advances have provided the ability to tap into a natural resource, the world gene pool, with such great potential that its full magnitude is only beginning to be appreciated. Theoretically, it should be possible to transfer one or more genes from any organism in the world into any other organism. Because genes ultimately control how any organism functions, gene transfer can have a dramatic impact on agricultural resources and human health in the future.
Although the term “biotechnology” is relatively new, the practice of biotechnology, according to the foregoing definition, is at least as old as civilization. Civilization did not evolve until humankind learned to produce food crops and domesticate livestock through the controlled breeding of selected plants and animals. Eventually humans began to utilize microorganisms in the production of foods such as cheese and alcoholic beverages. During the twentieth century, the pace of human modification of various organisms accelerated. Because both the speed and scope of this form of biotechnology are so different from what has been historically practiced, it is sometimes referred to as modern biotechnology to discriminate it from traditional biotechnology. Through carefully controlled breeding programs, plant architecture and fruit characteristics of crops have been modified to facilitate mechanical harvesting. Plants have been developed to produce specific...
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Developments in Biotechnology (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
For many years, the methods for selecting desirable traits in living organisms remained unchanged. In the early 1900’s, even with the realization that specific traits are linked with packets of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) called genes (the amount of DNA required to encode a single protein), scientists remained constrained to the methods of artificial selection in use throughout history. This changed in the 1970’s, when techniques were developed both to determine the order of the four possible DNA “bases” (which spell out the information found in a gene)—a process called DNA sequencing—and to transfer this gene into another organism. The use of modern biotechnology in crops, livestock, and medicine can be divided into three major stages: identifying a gene of interest, transferring this gene into the organism of interest, and mass-producing the “transgenic” organisms that have taken up this foreign DNA.
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Identification of Genes of Interest (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
As DNA-sequencing technology progressed, it soon became possible not only to sequence the DNA found in individual genes but also to determine the entire DNA complement of an organism, including its entire set of genes, referred to as its genome. Genome sequencing, in conjunction with traditional genetic techniques that allowed traits to be mapped to particular regions on a chromosome, soon led to a wealth of information concerning which genes controlled particular traits. Eventually, by comparing the DNA sequences of many different organisms, the role of a given gene could often be surmised, even if no direct genetic evidence was available for that particular gene. In this way genes could be targeted for experimental manipulation based on their similarity to known genes. Techniques were then developed in the late twentieth century that allowed for entire genomes to be screened for their response to given conditions, even if the function of individual genes could not be guessed from existing genetic data. Here, the genome of an organism is broken into roughly gene-sized fragments, which are in turn covalently attached to a glass slide to create a DNA microarray, or gene chip. These chips can then be probed with the ribonucleic acid (RNA) produced by organisms that have been exposed to certain conditions, RNA being the intermediate chemical produced by genes prior to the manufacture of protein in the cell....
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Recombinant DNA Technology (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
Because the DNA of all cells—whether from bacteria, plants, lower animals, or humans—is very similar, when DNA from a foreign species is transferred into a different cell, it functions exactly as the native DNA functions; that is, it “codes” for protein. The simplest protocol for this transfer involves the use of a vector, usually a piece of circular DNA called a plasmid, which is removed from a microorganism such as bacteria and cut open by an enzyme called a restriction endonuclease or restriction enzyme. A section of DNA from the donor cell that contains a previously identified gene of interest is cut out from the donor cell DNA by the same restriction endonuclease. The section of donor cell DNA with the gene of interest is then combined with the open plasmid DNA, and the plasmid closes with the new gene as part of its structure. This process is referred to as “cloning” the gene. The recombinant plasmid (DNA from two sources) is placed back into the bacteria, where it will replicate and code for protein just as it did in the donor cell. The bacteria can be cultured and the gene product (protein) harvested, or the bacteria can be used as a vector to transfer the gene to another species, where it will also be expressed, creating a “transgenic” organism. This transfer of genes (and therefore of inherited traits between very different species) has revolutionized biotechnology and provides the potential for...
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Mass Production of Desired Organisms (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
Once an organism has been transformed using recombinant DNA technology, or even if an organism that has all of the desired characteristics has been isolated from nature for a particular application, the next step in biotechnology is to produce as many exact copies of that organism as possible. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, the ability to utilize artificial media to propagate plants led to the development of a technology called tissue culture. The earliest form of tissue culture involved using the culture of meristem tissue to produce numerous tiny shoots that can be grown into full-size plants, referred to as whole organism clones because each plant is genetically identical. More than one thousand plant species have been propagated by tissue culture techniques. Plants have been propagated via the culture of other tissues, including the stems and roots. In some of these techniques, the plant tissue is treated with the proper plant hormones to produce callus tissue, masses of undifferentiated cells. The callus tissue can be separated into single cells to establish a cell suspension culture. Callus tissue and cell suspensions can be used to produce specific drugs and other chemicals; entire plants can also be regenerated from the callus tissue or from single cells.
Numerous advances in animal biotechnology have also occurred. Artificial insemination, the process in which semen is collected from the...
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Biotechnology in Crop Production (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
Biotechnology will undoubtedly continue to have a tremendous impact on agriculture in the future. Experts who study human populations predict that the number of human inhabitants on Earth will reach alarming proportions by the mid-twenty-first century. The only way in which civilization can continue to advance, or even maintain a steady state, in the face of this potential disaster will be to increase food production, and biotechnology will most likely play an important role in producing this increase. Increased food production has been dependent on developments such as crop plants that produce higher yields under normal conditions and crops that produce higher yields when grown in marginal environments.
Even under the best of situations, there is a limited amount of land available for crop production, and while the number of people that have to be fed will continue to increase, the amount of good agricultural land will remain the same or decrease. If mass starvation is to be avoided, crops with higher yields will have to be developed and grown on the available land. As human populations continue to grow, good agricultural lands are taken over for industry, housing developments, and parking lots. As nonrenewable sources of energy—notably fossil fuels—are depleted, more land will be diverted to produce cellulosic material devoted to fuel production (the diversion of corn crops for ethanol production in the...
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Biotechnology and the Environment (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
While there will be a growing pressure for agriculture to produce more food in the future, there will also be increased pressure for crop production to be more friendly to the environment. Biotechnology plays a major role in the development of a long-term, sustainable, environmentally friendly agricultural system. For example, one of the major biotechnical goals is the development of crops with improved resistance to pests such as insects, fungi, and nematodes. The availability of crop varieties with improved pest resistance in turn reduces the reliance on pesticides. In conjunction with the improvements made through biotechnology, improved methods of crop production and harvest with less environmental impact will also have to be developed. Regardless of the technological advancements made in pest resistance, crop production, and harvest, agriculture will continue to have an impact on the environment. Agricultural pollutants will still be present, though perhaps in reduced amounts, and the need to remediate these polluting agents will continue to exist. Hence, biotechnology will play an important role in the development of bioremediation systems for agriculture as well as other industrial pollutants.
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Biotechnology in Livestock Production (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
Biotechnology also plays an important role in livestock production. A gene product called bovine somatotropin, or BST, a hormone that stimulates growth in cattle, was one of the first proteins to be harvested from recombinant bacteria and given to dairy cattle to enhance milk production. The application of biotechnology to living organisms, especially to animals, has not been without controversy, however. Critics of the use of BST in cattle raised concerns about the health and well-being of the cows that had to be subjected to repeated injections in order to boost milk production and pointed to the presence of small quantities of this hormone, as well as a related hormone called IGF-1, in the milk produced by these cows. Despite a wealth of scientific evidence that these hormones posed no threat to humans and were in fact destroyed during the process of digestion, public concern led a majority of companies to eventually discontinue the use of BST treatment. Assuming that public concerns are sufficiently addressed, future experimentation may lead to increased productivity and, at the same time, a reduction in the cost of production of animal products. As with plants, disease-resistant animals are being genetically engineered, and parasites are being controlled by genetic manipulation of their physiology and biochemistry. Animals, like plants, have been genetically engineered to produce novel and interesting...
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Biotechnology in Medicine (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
While recombinant technology has already had an indirect influence on human well-being through its effects on plants and livestock, it will probably also have a dramatic, direct impact on human health. Recombinant DNA technology can be used to produce a variety of gene products that are utilized in the clinical treatment of diseases. A number of human hormones produced by this methodology have been in use for some time. Human growth hormone (HGH), marketed under the name Protropin, was one of the first recombinant proteins to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in this case to treat a disease called hyposomatotropism. People suffering from this disease do not produce enough growth hormone and without treatment with HGH will not reach normal height. Insulin, a hormone used to treat insulin-dependent diabetics, was the first major success in using a product of recombinant technology. Beginning in 1982, recombinant DNA-produced insulin, marketed under the name Humalin, has been used to treat thousands of diabetic patients. A pituitary hormone, called somatostatin, was another early success of recombinant DNA techniques. This hormone controls the release of insulin and human growth hormone. Some of the interferons, small proteins produced by a cell to combat viral infections, have also been produced using recombinant DNA methodology. The technology could thus be used to produce vaccines against viral...
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Ownership Issues (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
Many difficult ethical and economic issues surrounding the use of modern biotechnology remain. One of the major questions concerns ownership. The U.S. patent laws currently read that ownership of an organism can be granted if the organism has been intentionally genetically altered through the use of recombinant DNA techniques. In addition, processes that utilize genetically altered organisms can be patented. Therefore one biotechnology firm may own the patent to an engineered organism, but another firm may own the rights to the process used to produce it.
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Further Reading (Encyclopedia of Global Resources)
Campbell, Neil A., and Jane B. Reece. Biology. 8th ed. San Francisco: Pearson/Benjamin Cummings, 2008.
Chrispeels, Maarten J., and David E. Sadava. Plants, Genes, and Crop Biotechnology. 2d ed. Boston: Jones and Bartlett, 2003.
Field, Thomas G., and Robert E. Taylor. Scientific Farm Animal Production: An Introduction to Animal Science. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2008.
Holdrege, Craig, and Steve Talbott. Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008.
Kreuzer, Helen, and Adrianne Massey. Molecular Biology and Biotechnology: A Guide for Students. 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: ASM Press, 2008.
Lewis, Ricki. Human Genetics: Concepts and Applications. 7th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2007.
Mousdale, David M. Biofuels: Biotechnology, Chemistry, and Sustainable Development. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2008.
Reiss, Michael J., and Roger Straughan. Improving Nature? The Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Renneberg, Reinhard. Biotechnology for Beginners. Edited by Arnold L. Demain. Berlin: Springer, 2008.
Taylor, Robert E., and Thomas G. Field. Scientific Farm Animal Production. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall,...
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Biotechnology (Encyclopedia of Science)
Biotechnology is the application of biological processes in the development of products. These products may be organisms, cells, parts of a cell, or chemicals for use in medicine, biology, or industry.
History of biotechnology
Biotechnology has been used by humans for thousands of years in the production of beer and wine. In a process called fermentation, microorganisms such as yeasts and bacteria are mixed with natural products that the microorganisms use as food. In winemaking, yeasts live on the sugars found in grape juice. They digest these sugars and produce two new products: alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Early in the twentieth century, scientists used bacteria to break down, or decompose, organic matter in sewage, thus providing a means for dealing efficiently with these materials in solid waste. Microorganisms were also used to produce various substances in the laboratory.
Hybridizationhe production of offspring from two animals or plants of different breeds, varieties, or speciess a form of biotechnology that does not depend on microorganisms. Farmers long ago learned that they could produce offspring with certain characteristics by carefully selecting the parents. In some cases, entirely new animal forms were created that do not occur in nature. An example is the mule,...
(The entire section is 665 words.)
Biotechnology (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Biotechnology is a set of techniques by which human beings modify living things or use them as tools. In its modern form, biotechnology uses the techniques of molecular biology to understand and manipulate the basic building blocks of living things. The earliest biotechnology, however, was the selective breeding of plants and animals to improve their food value. This was followed in time by the use of yeast to make bread, wine, and beer. These early forms of biotechnology began about ten thousand years ago and lie at the basis of human cultural evolution from small bands of hunter-gatherers to large, settled communities, cities, and nations, giving rise, in turn, to writing and other technologies. It is doubtful that, at the outset, the first biotechnologists understood the effects of their actions, and so the reason for their persistence in pursuing, for example, selective breeding over the hundreds of generations necessary to show much advantage in food value, remains something of a mystery.
The world's historic religions emerged within the context of agriculture and primitive biotechnology, and as one might expect they are at home in that context, for instance through their affirmation of agricultural festivals. In addition, Christianity took the view that nature itself has a history, according to which, nature originally was a perfectly ordered garden, but as a result of human refusal to live within limits, nature was cursed or disordered by its creator. The curse makes nature at once historic, disordered, both friendly and hostile to human life, and open to improvement through human work. These effects fall especially on human agriculture and childbirth, both of which are focal areas of biotechnology.
By the time of Charles Darwin (1809882), plant and animal breeders were deliberate and highly successful in applying techniques of selective breeding to achieve specific, intended results. Darwin's theory of evolution is built in part on his observation of the ability of animal breeders to modify species. The work of human breeders helped Darwin see that species are variable, dynamic, and subject to change. Inspired by the success of intentional selective breeding, Darwin proposed his theory of natural selection, by which nature unintentionally acts something like a human breeder. Nature, however, uses environmental selection, which favors certain individuals over others in breeding. The theory of natural selection, of course, led to a profound shift in human consciousness about the fluidity of life, which in turn fueled modern biotechnology and its view that life may be improved. While Christianity struggled with other implications of Darwinism, it did not object to the prospect that human beings can modify nature, perhaps even human nature.
The emergence of modern biotechnology
In the twentieth century, as biologists refined Darwin's proposal and explored its relationship to genetics, plant breeders such as Luther Burbank (1849926) and Norman Borlaug (1914 took selective breeding to new levels of success, significantly increasing the quality and quantity of basic food crops. But it was the late twentieth-century breakthroughs in molecular biology and genetic engineering that established the technological basis for modern biotechnology. The discovery that units of hereditary information, or genes, reside in cells in a long molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid (or DNA) led to an understanding of the structure of DNA and the technology to manipulate it. Biotechnology is no longer limited to the genes found in nature or to those that could be moved within a species by breeding. Bioengineers can move genes from one species to another, from bacteria to human beings, and they can modify them within organisms.
The discovery in 1953 of the structure of DNA by Francis Crick (b. 1916) and James Watson (b. 1928) is but one key step in the story of molecular biology. Within two decades, this discovery opened the pathway to the knowledge of the socalled genetic alphabet or code of chemical bases that carry genetic information, an understanding of the relationship between that code and the proteins that result from it, and the ability to modify these structures and processes (genetic engineering). The decade of the 1980s saw the first transgenic mammals, which are mammals engineered to carry a gene from other species and to transmit it to their offspring, as well as important advances in the ability to multiply copies of DNA (polymerase chain reaction or PCR). The Human Genome Project, an international effort begun around 1990 to detail the entire DNA information contained in human cells, sparked the development of bioinfomatics, the use of powerful computers to acquire, store, share, and sort genetic information. As a result, not only is a standard human DNA sequence fully known (published in February 2001), but it is now possible to determine the detailed code in any DNA strand quickly and cheaply, a development likely to have wide applications in medicine and beyond.
Biotechnology is also dependent upon embryology and reproductive technology, a set of techniques by which animal reproduction is assisted or modified. These techniques were developed largely for agricultural purposes and include artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and other ways of manipulating embryos or the gametes that produce them. In 1978, the first in vitro human being was born, and new techniques are being added to what reproductive clinics can do to help women achieve pregnancy. These developments have been opposed by many Orthodox Christian and Roman Catholic theologians, by the Vatican, and by some Protestants, notably Paul Ramsey. Other faith traditions have generally accepted these technologies. In addition, some feminist scholars have criticized reproductive medicine as meeting the desires of men at the expense of women and their health.
Reproductive medicine, however it may be assessed on its own merits, does raise new concerns when it is joined with other forms of biotechnology, such as genetic testing and genetic engineering. In the 1990s, in vitro fertilization was joined with genetic testing, allowing physicians to work with couples at risk for a genetic disease by offering them the option of conceiving multiple embryos, screening them for disease before implantation, and implanting only those that were not likely to develop the disease. This technique, known as preimplantation diagnosis, is accepted as helpful by many Muslim, Jewish, and Protestant theologians, but is rejected by Orthodox Christians and in official Catholic statements. The ground for this objection is that the human embryo must be shown the respect due human life, all the more so because it is weak and vulnerable. It is permissible to treat the embryo as a patient, but not to harm it or discard it in order to treat infertility or to benefit another. The usual counterargument is to reject the view that the embryo should be respected as a human life or a person.
The significance of stem cells and cloning
Developments in cloning and in the science and technology of stem cells offer additional tools for biotechnology. In popular understanding, cloning is usually seen as a technique of reproduction, and of course it does have that potential. The birth of Dolly, the cloned sheep, announced in 1997, was a surprising achievement that suggests that any mammal, including human beings, can be created from a cell taken from a previously existing individual. Many who accept reproductive technology generally, including such techniques as in vitro fertilization, found themselves opposing human reproductive cloning, but they are not sure how to distinguish between the two in religiously or morally compelling ways. With few exceptions, however, religious institutions and leaders from all faith traditions have opposed human reproductive cloning, if only because the issues of safety seem insurmountable for the foreseeable future. At the same time, almost no one has addressed the religious or moral implications of the use of reproductive cloning for mammals other than human beings, although it has been suggested that it would not be wise or appropriate to use the technique to produce large herds of livestock for food because of the risk of a pathogen destroying the entire herd.
The technique used to create Dollyhe transfer of the nuclear DNA from an adult cell to an egg, thereby creating an embryo and starting it through its own developmental processan serve purposes other than reproduction, and it is these other uses that are especially interesting to biotechnology. Of particular interest is the joining of the nuclear transfer technique with the use of embryonic stem cells to treat human disease. In 1998, researchers announced success in deriving human embryonic stem cells from donated embryos. These cells show promise for treating many diseases. Once derived, they seem to be capable of being cultured indefinitely, dividing and doubling in number about every thirty hours. As of 2002, researchers have some confidence that these cells can be implanted in the human body at the site of disease or injury, where they can proliferate and develop further, and thereby take up the function of cells that were destroyed or impaired.
Stem cells, of course, can be derived from sources other than the embryo, and research is underway to discover the promise of stem cells derived from alternative sources. There are two advantages in using these other sources. First, no embryos are destroyed in deriving these cells. For anyone who sets a high standard of protection for the human embryo, the destruction of the embryo calls into question the morality of any use of embryonic stem cells. Second, the use of stem cells from sources other than an embryo may mean that in time, medical researchers will learn how to derive healing cells from the patient's own body. The advantage here is that these cells, when implanted, will not be rejected by the patient's immune system. Embryonic stem cells, which may have advantages in terms of their developmental plasticity, are decidedly problematic because of the immune response.
One way to eliminate the immune response is to use nuclear transfer to create an embryo for the patient, harvesting stem cells from that embryo (thereby destroying it) and implanting these cells in the patient. Because they bear the patient's DNA, they should not be rejected. This approach is medically complicated, however, and involves the morally problematic step of creating an embryo to be destroyed for the benefit of another.
As a result of the developments in the underlying science and technologies, biotechnology is able to modify any form of life in ways that seem to be limited only by the imagination or the market. Biotechnology has produced genetically modified microorganisms for purposes ranging from toxic waste clean-up to the production of medicine. For example, by inserting a human gene into a bacterium that is grown in bulk, biotechnology is able to create a living factory of organisms that have been engineered to make a specific human protein. Such technologies may also be used to enhance the virulence of organisms, to create weapons for bioterrorism, or to look for means of defense against such weapons. Aside from obvious concerns about weapons development, religious institutions and scholars have not objected to these uses of biotechnology, although some Protestant groups question the need for patents, especially when sought for specific genes.
Plants, perhaps the first organisms modified by the earliest biotechnology, remain the subject of intense efforts. Around the year 2000, major advances were made in plant genome research, leading to the possibility that the full gene system of some plant species can be studied in detail, and the ways in which plants respond to their environment may be understood as never before. Some attention is given to plants for pharmaceutical purposes, but the primary interest of biotechnology in plants is to improve their value and efficiency as sources of food. For instance, attempts have been made to increase the protein value of plants like rice. The dependence of farm plants on fertilizer and pesticides may also be reduced using biotechnology to engineer plants that, for instance, are resistant to certain insects.
In the 1990s, the expanding use of genetically modified plants in agriculture was met with growing concerns about their effects on health and on the environment. Adding proteins to plants by altering their genes might cause health problems for at least some who consume the plants, perhaps through rare allergic reactions. Genes that produce proteins harmful to some insects may cause harm to other organisms, and they might even jump from the modified farm plant to wild plants growing nearby. Furthermore, some believe that consumers have a right to avoid food that is altered by modern biotechnology, and so strict segregation and labeling must be required. Deeply held values about food and, to some extent, its religious significance underlie many of these concerns. In Europe and the United Kingdom, where public opposition to genetically modified food has been strong, some churches have objected to excessive reliance upon biotechnology in food production and have supported the right of consumers to choose, while at the same time recognizing that biotechnology can increase the amount and the value of food available to the world's neediest people.
Animals are also modified by biotechnology, and this raises additional concerns for animal welfare. Usually the purpose of the modification is related to human health. Biotechnologists may, for example, create animals that produce pharmaceuticals that are expressed, for instance, in milk, or they may create animal research models that mimic human disease. These modifications usually involve a change in the animal germlinehat is, they are transmissible to future generations and they affect every cell in the body. Such animals may be patented, at least in some countries. All this raises concern about what some see as the commodification of life, the creation of unnecessary suffering for the animals, and a reductionistic attitude toward nature that sees animals as nothing but raw materials that may be reshaped according to human interest.
It is the human applications of biotechnology, however, that elicit the most thorough and intense religious responses. As of 2002, genetic technologies are used to screen for a wide range of genetic conditions, but treatments for these diseases are slow to develop. Screening and testing of pregnancies, newborns, and adults have become widespread in medicine, and the resulting knowledge is used to plan for and sometimes prevent the development of disease, or to terminate a pregnancy in order to prevent the birth of an infant with foreseeable health problems. Some religious bodies, especially Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian, vigorously criticize this use of genetic testing. One particular use of prenatal testingo identify the sex of the unborn and to abort femaless thought to be widespread in cultures that put a high priority on having sons, even though it is universally criticized. It is believed that the uses of testing will grow, while the technologies to treat disease will lag behind.
Attempts at treatment lie along two general pathways: pharmaceuticals and gene therapy. Biotechnology offers new insight into the fundamental processes of disease, either by the creation of animal models or by insight into the functions of human cells. With this understanding, researchers are able to design pharmaceutical products with precise knowledge of their molecular and cellular effects, with greater awareness of which patients will benefit, and with fewer side effects. This is leading to a revolution in pharmaceutical products and is proving to be effective in treating a range of diseases, including cancer, but at rapidly increasing costs and amidst growing concerns about access to these benefits, especially in the poorest nations.
Gene therapy, begun in human beings in 1990, tries to treat disease by modifying the genes that affect its development. Originally the idea was to treat the classic genetic diseases, such as Tay Sachs or cystic fibrosis, and it is expected that in time this technique will offer some help in treating these diseases. But gene therapy will probably find far wider use in treating other diseases not usually seen as genetic because researchers have learned how genes play a role in the body's response to every disease. Modifying this response may be a pathway to novel therapies, by which the body treats itself from the molecular level. For instance, it has been shown that modified genes can trigger the regeneration of blood vessels around the heart. In time these approaches will probably be joined with stem cell techniques and with other cell technologies, giving medicine a range of new methods for modifying the body in order to regenerate cells and tissues.
Religious opinion has generally supported gene therapy, seeing it as essentially an extension of traditional therapies. At the same time, both religious scholars and bioethicists have begun to debate the prospect that these technologies will be used not just to treat disease but to modify traits, such as athletic or mental ability, that have nothing to do with disease, perhaps to enhance these traits for competitive reasons. Many accept the idea of therapy but reject enhancement, believing that there is a significant difference between the two goals. Many scholars, however, are skeptical about whether an unambiguous distinction can be drawn, much less enforced, between therapy and enhancement. Starting down the pathway of gene therapy may mean that human genetic enhancement is likely to follow. This prospect raises religious concerns that people who can afford to do so will acquire genetic advantages that will lead to further privilege, or that people will use these technologies to accommodate rather than challenge social prejudices.
It is also expected that these techniques will be joined with reproductive technologies, opening the prospect that future generations of humans can be modified. The prospect of such germline modification is greeted with fear and opposition by many, usually for reasons that suggest religious themes. In Europe, germline modification is generally rejected as a violation of the human rights of future generations, specifically the right to be born with a genome unaffected by technology. In the United States, the opposition is less adamant but deeply apprehensive about issues of safety and about the long-term societal impact of what are popularly called "designer babies." Religious bodies have supported these concerns and have called either for total opposition or careful deliberation.
How far biotechnology can go is limited by the complexities of life processes, in particular in the subtleties of interaction between DNA and the environment. Biotechnology itself helps researchers discover these subtleties, and as much as biotechnology depends upon the sciences of biology and genetics, it must be noted that the influence between technology and science is reciprocal. The Human Genome Project, for instance, opened important new questions about human evolution and about how DNA results in proteins. Knowledge of the genomes of various species reveals that the relationship between human beings and distant species, such as single-celled or relatively simple organisms, turns out to be surprisingly close, suggesting that evolution conserves genes as species diverge.
Perhaps even more surprising is the way in which the Project has challenged the standard view in modern genetics of the tight relationship between each gene and its protein, the so-called dogma of one gene, one protein. It turns out that human beings have about one hundred thousand proteins but only about thirty-three thousand genes, and that genes are more elusive and dynamic than once thought. It appears that DNA sequences from various chromosomes assemble to become the functional gene, the complete template necessary to specify the protein, and that these various sequences can assemble in more than one way, leading to more than one protein. Such dynamic complexity allows some thirty-three thousand DNA coding sequences to function as the templates for one hundred thousand proteins. But this complexity, in view of the limited understanding of the processes that define it, means that the ability to modify DNA sequences may have limited success and unpredictable consequences, which should lower confidence in genetic engineering, especially when applied to human beings.
Biotechnology is further limited by financial factors. Most biotechnology is pursued within a commercial context, and the prospect of near-term financial return must be present to support research. Biotechnology depends upon access to capital and upon legal protection for intellectual property, such as the controversial policy of granting patent protection on DNA sequences or genes and on genetically modified organisms, including mammals. This financial dependence is itself a matter of controversy, giving rise to the fear that life itself is becoming a mere commodity or that the only values are those of the market.
A look ahead
There is no reason, however, to think that biotechnology has reached the limits of its powers. On the contrary, biotechnology is growing not just in the scope of its applications but in the range and power of its techniques. Biotechnology's access to the whole genomes of human beings and other species means that the dynamic action and interaction of the entire set of genes can be monitored. In one sense, the completion of full genomes ushers in what some have called post-genomic biotechnology, characterized by a new vantage point of a systematic overview of the cell and the organism. This is proving valuable, for instance, in opening new understandings of cancer as a series of mutation events within a set of cells in the body. Attention is turning, however, from the study of genes to the study of proteins, which are more numerous than genes but also more dynamic, coming quickly into and out of existence in the trillions of cells of the human body according to precise temporal and spatial signals. Most human proteins are created only in a small percentage of cells, during a limited period of human development, and only in precisely regulated quantities. Studying this full set of proteins, in all its functional dynamism, is a daunting task requiring technologies that do not exist at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The systematic study of proteins, called proteomics, may in fact become a new international project for biology, leading in time to a profound expansion of the powers of biotechnology.
In time, researchers will develop powerful new methods for modifying DNA, probably with far higher precision and effectiveness than current techniques allow, and perhaps with the ability to transfer large amounts of DNA into living cells and organisms. Computer power, which is essential to undertakings like the Human Genome Project and to their application, continues to grow, along with developments such as the so-called gene chip, using DNA as an integrated part of the computing device. Advances in engineering at the very small scale, known as nanotechnology (from nanometer, a billionth of a meter), suggest that molecular scale devices may someday be used to modify biological functions at the molecular level. For instance, nanotechnology devices in quantity may be inserted into the human body to enter cells, where they might modify DNA or other molecules. In another area of research, scientists are exploring the possibility that DNA itself may be used as a computer or a data storage device. DNA is capable of storing information more efficiently than current storage media, and it may be possible to exploit this capacity.
It is impossible to predict when new techniques will be developed or what powers they will bring. It is clear, however, that new techniques will be found and that they will converge in their effectiveness to modify life. Precisely designed pharmaceutical products will be available to treat nearly every disease, often by interrupting them at the molecular level and doing so in ways that match the specific needs of the patient. Stem cells, whether derived from embryos or from patients themselves, will probably be used to regenerate nearly any tissue or cell in the body, perhaps even portions of organs, including the brain. The genes in patients' bodies will be modified, either to correct a genetic anomaly that underlies a disease or to trigger a special response in specific cells to treat a disease or injury. It is more difficult to foresee the full extent of the long-term consequences of biotechnology on nonhuman species, on the ecosystem, on colonies of life beyond Earth, and on the human species itself; estimates vary in the extreme. Some suggest that through these means, human beings will engineer their own biological enhancements, perhaps becoming two or more species.
The prospect of these transformations has evoked various religious responses, and scholars from many traditions have been divided in their assessments. Those who support and endorse biotechnology stress religious duties to heal the sick and feed the hungry. Most hold the view that nature is to be improved, perhaps within limits, and that human beings are authorized to modify the processes of life. Some suggest that creation is not static but progressive, and that human beings are co-creators with God in the achievement of its full promise.
Others believe biotechnology will pervert nature and undermine human existence and its moral basis. They argue, for instance, that genetic modifications of offspring will damage the relationship between parents and children by reducing children to objects, products of technology, and limit their freedom to grow into persons in relationship with others. Some warn that saying yes to biotechnology now will make it impossible to say no in the future. Still others suggest that the point is not to try to stop biotechnology but to learn to live humanely with its powers, and as much as possible to steer it away from selfish or excessive uses and toward compassionate and just ends.
See also CLONING; DARWIN, CHARLES; DNA; EVOLUTION; EUGENICS; GENE PATENTING; GENE THERAPY; GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS; GENETIC ENGINEERING; GENETICS; GENETIC TESTING; HUMAN GENOME PROJECT; IN VITRO FERTILIZATION; REPRODUCTIVE TECHNOLOGY; STEM CELL RESEARCH
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Chapman, Audrey R. Unprecedented Choices: Religious Ethics at the Frontiers of Genetic Science. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1999
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Cole-Turner, Ronald. Beyond Cloning: Religion and the Remaking of Humanity. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2001.
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Evans, John H. Playing God? Human Genetic Engineering and the Rationalization of Public Bioethical Debate. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Genome Sequencing Consortium. "Initial Sequencing and Analysis of the Human Genome." Nature 409 (2001): 86021.
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Biotechnology (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
BIOTECHNOLOGY. Biotechnology, in its broadest sense, is the use of biological systems to carry out technical processes. Food biotechnology uses genetic methods to enhance food properties and to improve production, and in particular uses direct (rather than random) strategies to modify genes that are responsible for traits such as a vegetable's nutritional content. Using modern biotechnology, scientists can move genes for valuable traits from one plant into another plant. This way, they can make a plant taste or look better, be more nutritious, protect itself from insects, produce more food, or survive and prosper in inhospitable environments, for example, by incorporating tolerance to increased soil salinity. Simply put, food biotechnology is the practice of directing genetic changes in organisms that produce food in order to make a better product.
In nature, plants produce their own chemical defenses to ward off disease and insects thereby reducing the need for insecticide sprays. Biotechnology is often used to enhance these defenses. Some improvements are crop specific. For example, potatoes with a higher starch content will absorb less oil when frying, and tomatoes with delayed ripening qualities will have improved taste and freshness.
Paving the Way to Modern Biotechnology
Advances in science over many years account for what we know and are able to accomplish with modern biotechnology and food production. A brief review of genetics and biochemistry is useful in evaluating the role of biotechnology in our food supply.
Proteins are composed of various combinations of amino acids. They are essential for lifeoth for an organism's structure, and for the metabolic reactions necessary for the organism to function. The number, kind, and order of amino acids in a specific protein determine its properties. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which is present in all the cells of all organisms, contains the information needed for cells to put amino acids in the correct order. In other words, DNA contains the genetic blueprint determining how cells in all living organisms store, duplicate, and pass information about protein structure from generation to generation.
In 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick published their discovery that the molecular structure of DNA is a double helix, for which they, along with Maurice H. F. Wilkins, won a Nobel Prize in 1962. Two strands of DNA are composed of pairs of chemicalsdenine (A) and thymine (T); and guanine (G) and cytosine (C). A segment of DNA that encodes enough information to make one protein is called a gene. It is the order of DNA's base pairs that determines specific genes that code for specific proteins, which determines individual traits.
By 1973 scientists had found ways to isolate individual genes, and by the 1980s, scientists could transfer single genes from one organism to another. This process, much like traditional crossbreeding, allows transferred traits to pass to future generations of the recipient organism.
One Goal, Two Approaches
The objective of plant biotechnology and traditional crop breeding is the same: to improve the characteristics of seed so that the resulting plants have new, desirable traits. The primary difference between the two techniques is how the objective is achieved. Plant breeders have used traditional tools such as hybridization and crossbreeding to improve the quality and yield of their crops with a resulting wide variability in our foods. These traditional techniques resulted in several benefits, such as greatly increased crop production and improved quality of food and feed crops, which has proven beneficial to growers and producers as well as consumers through a reduction of the cost of food for consumers. However, traditional plant breeding techniques do have some limits; only plants from the same or similar species can be interbred. Because of this, the sources for potential desirable traits are finite. In addition, the process of crossbreeding is very time-consuming, at times taking ten to twelve years to achieve the desired goalnd complications can arise because all genes of the two "parent" plants are combined together. This means that both the desirable and undesirable traits may be expressed in the new plant. It takes a significant amount of time to remove the unwanted traits by "back crossing" the new plant over many generations to achieve the desired traits. These biotech methods can preserve the unique genetic composition of some crops while allowing the addition or incorporation of specific genetic traits, such as resistance to disease. However, development of transgenic crop varieties still requires a significant investment of time and resources.
The Many Applications of Biotechnology
Since the earliest times, people have been using simple forms of biotechnology to improve their food supply, long before the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick. For example, grapes and grains were modified through fermentation with microorganisms and used to make wine, beer, and leavened bread. Modern biotechnology, which uses the latest molecular biology technology, allows us to more directly modify our foods. Whereas traditional plant breeding mixes tens of thousands of genes, biotechnology allows for the transfer of a single gene, or a few select genes or traits. The most common uses thus far have been the introduction of traits that help farmers simplify crop production, reduce pesticide use in some crops, and increase profitability by reduction of crop losses to weeds, insect damage, or disease.
In general, the early applications of crop biotechnology have been at points in our food supply chain where economic benefit can be gained. The following are examples of modern biotechnology where success has been achieved or is in progress.
Insect resistance. Crop losses from insect pests can cause devastating financial loss for growers and starvation in developing countries. In the United States and Europe, thousands of tons of pesticides are used to control insects. Using modern biotechnology, scientists and farmers have removed the need for the use of some of these chemicals. Insect-protected plants are developed by introducing a gene into a plant that produces a specific protein from a naturally occurring soil organism. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is one of many bacteria naturally present in soil. This bacterium is known to be lethal to certain classes of insects, and only those organisms. The Bt protein produced by the bacterium is the natural insecticide. Growing foods, such as Bt corn, can help eliminate the application of chemical pesticides and reduce the cost of bringing a crop to market. The introduction of insect-protected crops such as Bt cotton has allowed reduced use of chemical pesticides. This suggests that genetically engineered food crops can also be grown with reduced use of pesticides, a development that would be welcomed by the general public.
Herbicide tolerance. Every year, farmers must battle weeds that compete with their crops for water, nutrients, sunlight, and space. Weeds can also harbor insects and disease. Farmers routinely use two or more different chemicals on a crop to remove both grass and broadleaf weeds. In recent years new "broad-spectrum" chemicals have been discovered that control all these weeds and therefore require only one application of one chemical to the crop. To provide crops with a defense against these nonselective herbicides, genes have been added to plants that render the chemicals inactiveut only in the new, herbicide-resistant crop. Many benefits come from these crops, including better and more flexible weed control for farmers, increased use of conservation tillage (involving less working of the soil and thereby decreasing erosion), and promoting the use of herbicides that have a better environmental profile (that is, that are less toxic to nontarget organisms).
Disease resistance. Many viruses, fungi, and bacteria can cause plant diseases, resulting in crop damage and loss. Researchers have had great success in developing crops that are protected from certain types of plant viruses by introducing DNA from the virus into the plant. In essence, the plants are "vaccinated" against specific diseases. Because most plant viruses are spread by insects, farmers can use fewer insecticides and still have healthy crops and high yields.
Drought tolerance and salinity tolerance. As the world population grows and industrial demand for water supplies increases, the amount of water used to irrigate crops will become more expensive or unavailable. Creating plants that can withstand long periods of drought or high salt content in soil and groundwater will help overcome these limitations. Although genetically engineered crops with enhanced drought tolerance are not yet commercially available, significant research advances are pointing the way to creating these in the future.
Food applications. Research into applications of biotechnology to food production covers a broad range of possibilities. Examples of food applications also include increasing the nutrient content of foods where deficiencies are widespread in the population. For example, researchers have successfully increased the amount of iron and beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A in humans) in carrots and "golden rice" biotech rice developed by the Rockefeller Foundation that may help provide children in developing nations with the vitamin A they need to reduce the risk of vision problems or blindness.
Another example of food biotechnology is crops modified for higher monounsaturated fatty acid levels in the vegetable to make them more "heart-healthy." Efforts are also under way to slow the ripening of some crops, such as bananas, tomatoes, peppers, and tropical fruits, to allow time to ship them from farms to large cities while preserving taste and freshness.
Other possible food applications for which pioneering research is under way include grains and nuts where naturally occurring allergens have been reduced or eliminated. Potatoes with higher starch content also promise to have the added potential to reduce the fat content in fried potato products, such as french fries and potato chips. This is because the starch replaces water in the potatoes, causing less fat to be absorbed into the potato when it is fried.
Edible vaccines. Vaccines that are commonly used today are often costly to produce and require cold storage conditions when shipped from their point of manufacture in the developed world to points of use in the developing world. Research has shown that protein-based vaccines can be designed into edible plants so that simple eating of the material leads to oral immunization. This technology will allow local production of vaccines in developing countries, reduction of vaccine costs, and promotion of global immunization programs to prevent infectious diseases.
Global food needs. The world population has topped six billion people and is predicted to double by 2050. Ensuring an adequate food supply for this booming population is going to be a major challenge in the years to come. Biotechnology can play a critical role in helping to meet the growing need for high-quality food produced in more sustainable ways.
What Are Consumers Saying?
Crops modified by biotechnology (also known as genetically modified or GM crops) have been the subjects of public discussion in recent years. Considerable public discussion may be attributed to the public's interest in the safety and usefulness of new products. Although biotechnology has a strongly supported safety record, some groups and organizations abroad and in the United States have expressed a desire for stronger regulation of biotechnology-derived products than of similar foods derived from older technology. The assessment of the need for new regulation is related to an understanding of the science itself, as was detailed in the sections above; this is a continual process of development.
Consumer acceptance is critical to the success of biotechnology around the world. Attitudes toward biotechnology vary from country to country because of cultural and political differences, in addition to many other influences.
In the United States, the majority of consumers are supportive about the potential benefits biotechnology can bring. Generally, U.S. consumers feel they would like to learn more about the topic, and respond favorably when they are given accurate, science-based information on the subject of food biotechnology.
See also Agriculture since the Industrial Revolution; Agronomy; Crop Improvement; Ecology and Food; Environment; Food Politics: United States; Food Safety; Gene Expression, Nutrient Regulation of; Genetic Engineering; Genetics; Government Agencies; Green Revolution; High-Technology Farming; Inspection; Marketing of Food; Toxins, Unnatural, and Food Safety.
Arntzen, Charles J. "Agricultural Biotechnology." In Nutrition and Agriculture. United Nations Administrative Committee on Coordination, Subcommittee on Nutrition, World Health Organization. September 2000
Borlaug, Norman E. "Feeding a World of 10 Billion People: The Miracle Ahead." Lecture given at De Moutfort University, Leicester, England, May 1997. International Food Information Council (IFIC). "Food Biotechnology Overview." Washington, D.C.: February 1998. Available at http://ific.org.
Cho, Mildred, David Magnus, Art Caplan, and Daniel McGee. "Ethical Considerations in Synthesizing a Minimal Genome." Science 286 (10 December 1999): 2087090.
Charles J. Arntzen Susan Pitman Katherine Thrasher
Biotechnology (World of Microbiology and Immunology)
The word biotechnology was coined in 1919 by Karl Ereky to apply to the interaction of biology with human technology. Today, it comes to mean a broad range of technologies from genetic engineering (recombinant DNA techniques), to animal breeding and industrial fermentation. Accurately, biotechnology is defined as the integrated use of biochemistry, microbiology, and engineering sciences in order to achieve technological (industrial) application of the capabilities of microorganisms, cultured tissue cells, and parts thereof.
The nature of biotechnology has undergone a dramatic change in the last half century. Modern biotechnology is greatly based on recent developments in molecular biology, especially those in genetic engineering. Organisms from bacteria to cows are being genetically modified to produce pharmaceuticals and foods. Also, new methods of disease gene isolation, analysis, and detection, as well as gene therapy, promise to revolutionize medicine.
In theory, the steps involved in genetic engineering are relatively simple. First, scientists decide the changes to be made in a specific DNA molecule. It is desirable in some cases to alter a human DNA molecule to correct errors that result in a disease such as diabetes. In other cases, researchers might add instructions to a DNA molecule that it does not normally carry: instructions for the manufacture of a chemical such as insulin, for example, in the DNA of bacteria that normally lack the ability to make insulin. Scientists also modify existing DNA to correct errors or add new information. Such methods are now well developed. Finally, scientists look for a way to put the recombinant DNA molecule into the organisms in which it is to function. Once inside the organism, the new DNA molecule give correct instructions to cells in humans to correct genetic disorders, in bacteria (resulting in the production of new chemicals), or in other types of cells for other purposes.
Genetic engineering has resulted in a number of impressive accomplishments. Dozens of products that were once available only from natural sources and in limited amounts are now manufactured in abundance by genetically engineered microorganisms at relatively low cost. Insulin, human growth hormone, tissue plasminogen activator, and alpha interferon are examples. In addition, the first trials with the alteration of human DNA to cure a genetic disorder began in 1991.
Molecular geneticists use molecular cloning techniques on a daily basis to replicate various genetic materials such as gene segments and cells. The process of molecular cloning involves isolating a DNA sequence of interest and obtaining multiple copies of it in an organism that is capable of growth over extended periods. Large quantities of the DNA molecule can then be isolated in pure form for detailed molecular analysis. The ability to generate virtually endless copies (clones) of a particular sequence is the basis of recombinant DNA technology and its application to human and medical genetics.
A technique called positional cloning is used to map the location of a human disease gene. Positional cloning is a relatively new approach to finding genes. A particular DNA marker is linked to the disease if, in general, family members with certain nucleotides at the marker always have the disease, and family members with other nucleotides at the marker do not have the disease. Once a suspected linkage result is confirmed, researchers can then test other markers known to map close to the one found, in an attempt to move closer and closer to the disease gene of interest. The gene can then be cloned if the DNA sequence has the characteristics of a gene and it can be shown that particular mutations in the gene confer disease.
Embryo cloning is another example of genetic engineering. Agricultural scientists are experimenting with embryo cloning processes with animal embryos to improve upon and increase the production of livestock. The first successful attempt at producing live animals by embryo cloning was reported by a research group in Scotland on March 6, 1997.
Although genetic engineering is a very important component of biotechnology, it is not alone. Biotechnology has been used by humans for thousands of years. Some of the oldest manufacturing processes known to humankind make use of biotechnology. Beer, wine, and bread making, for example, all occur because of the process of fermentation. As early as the seventeenth century, bacteria were used to remove copper from its ores. Around 1910, scientists found that bacteria could be used to decompose organic matter in sewage. A method that uses microorganisms to produce glycerol synthetically proved very important in the World War I since glycerol is essential to the manufacture of explosives.
See also Fermentation; Immune complex test; Immunoelectrophoresis; Immunofluorescence; Immunogenetics; Immunologic therapies; Immunological analysis techniques; Immunosuppressant drugs; In vitro and in vivo research