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Biotechnology is the field of applied biology that is involved with the exploitation of microorganisms to perform industrial and manufacturing processes. Biotechnology examines the pure biological sciences such as genetics, microbiology, animal cell culture, molecular biology, biochemistry, embryology and cell biology
More specifically, "biotechnology is the application of scientific and engineering principles to the processing of materials by biological agents (such as bacteria, yeast, enzymes etc.) to provide goods and services". (Bud, The Uses of Life, p. 1)
The concept of biotechnology encompasses a broad series of procedures that modifies organisms according to certain purposes of humans. These may include the domestication of animals, cultivation of plants, and 'improvements' to organisms through breeding programs that thus enable the ability to selectively breed (artificial selection) and hybridization.
The term biotechnology was coined in 1919 by a Hungarian engineer, Karl Ereky, however the application of biotechnology can be dated back thousands of years ago, where humans selectively breed livestock and crops.
In the early twentieth century, scientist gained a greater understanding of microbiology, where microbiological cultures were used in industrial processes.
Biotechnology had then lead to the development of antibiotics, most notably the researching and purification of the antibiotic, Penicillin.
('Overview and Brief History of Biotechnology', Murphy, A. 2009)
Modern biotechnology has been thought to have commenced on June 16, 1980, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that a genetically modified microorganism could be patented with. In this case, Ananda Chakrabarty had genetically developed a bacterium, which was capable of breaking down crude oil. #
Since 1980, Modern Biotechnology has seen remarkable progress including the evolution of genetic engineering, which has produced astounding innovations. As well as this, modern biotechnology has boosted farm productivity (i.e. genetically modified seeds), consequently playing a crucial role in ensuring that biofuel production targets are met.
('Modern Biotechnology', Australian Government 2009)
Biotechnology's application is vastly extensive, where its products may be seen on a daily basis. Its appliances are observed mainly in four major industrial fields. These are health care (medical), crop production and agriculture, industrial uses of crops and other products and Environmental uses.
With regard to the health care institute, biotechnology applications have been vital in the success and escalation of certain modern domains including drug production (i.e. medicines), pharmocogenomics and even genetic engineering. These have consequently led to breakthroughs in treatment of sickness and even cures for deadly diseases.
Intrinsic to this, Biotechnology has also assisted in agricultural means and the environment. As a result, the application of biotechnology have improved crop yield, reduced vulnerability of crops to environmental stresses, increases nutritional value, improvements in the taste, texture and appearance of food and also reduced the dependence on fertilizers and pesticides.
('Food and Agriculture', Australian Government 2009)
The Future of Biotechnology
Furthermore, biotechnology has given the impression to suddenly become a leading new biological revolution. It has engaged us to the brink of a world of "engineered" products that are based in the natural world. Where to now for biotechnology?
The recent emphasis on environmental awareness (i.e. atmospheric pollution - ozone), as well as the threat of deadly diseases including AIDS and resistant strains of tuberculosis and gonorrhea have challenged and confronted scientists globally, to discover solutions and generate new therapies within the field of biotechnology.
It is with utter buoyancy, that biotechnology will be a fundamental and imperative facet towards saving and possibly preserving human's existence on Earth in the future.
(Future of Biotechnology', Treohan, A. 2009)
As elucidated above, Biotechnology has been meticulously vital to the escalation of life-saving medicines and has provided significant research and results that will act as a stepping stone for years to come. Biotechnology has furnished the vision of pharmacogenomics that will enable the ability to design and produce drugs which would adapt to each person's genetic makeup.# As a result, its facilitate the development of tailor-made medicines, more accurate methods of determining appropriate drug doses and better vaccines.
Intrinsic to this, modern biotechnology has of late initiated a study that will be one of, if not the most promising scientific research to come. This is Genetic Engineering.
Genetic Engineering or genetic modification, is recognised as the human manipulation of the natural genetic material in an organism. More simply, it is the alteration of DNA in living organisms. Genetic engineering alters the genetic makeup of organisms, where techniques are exercised such that they introduce heritable material that has been prepared outside the organism
Genetic Engineering entails the use of recombinant DNA (artificial DNA that is created through the combining of two or more sequences - primary structure of a nucleic acid, that would not normally occur together) techniques, however does not involve the traditional animal and plant breeding and mutagenesis. One of the many biological studies which genetic engineering closely relates to is cloning. ('What is Genetic Engineering?', Mothers for Natural Law 2007)
Cloning is the asexual creation of an organism that is genetically identical to that of another organism. With regards to biotechnology, cloning refers to techniques used to create exact copies of DNA sequences (molecular cloning), cells (cell cloning) or even organisms. (Williams, A., 2008)
History of Cloning
'Dolly the sheep', is recognized as being the first mammal to have been cloned from an adult somatic (diploid) cell. She was successfully cloned on the 5th of July, 1996 by Ian Wilmut, Keith Campbell and colleagues at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh in Scotland. Acknowledged as the 'world's most famous sheep, Dolly was euthanised at the age 6 on the 14th of February, 2003, as she had progressive lung disease and severe arthritis. ('The Death of Dolly', Questacon 2009)
Dolly was cloned using the technique of somatic cell nuclear transfer, whereby the cell nucleus from an adult cell was transferred into an unfertilised oocyte (developing egg cell) that had its nucleus removed. The hybrid cell was then stimulated to divide through an electric shock, consequently developing into a blastocyst (a structure formed in the early embryogenesis of mammals), which was then able to be implanted in a surrogate mother. The cloning process involved in the creation of 'Dolly the Sheep' is shown in figure 1 to the right.
Since Dolly, several scientists have cloned other animals (mice, cows etc.) which have furnished promising and valid results into the capability and extent, cloning may encompass for the future. However, with this overriding recent success over the past 10 years, there have been fierce debates and controversy among scientist, politicians and the general public with regards to the use and morality of cloning plants, animals and possibly humans. ('History of Cloning', Oracle Think Quest 2009)
Types of Cloning
In modern biotechnology, various techniques of cloning may be performed, according to the desired outcome. This outcome refers to whether DNA or cells wish to be cloned. Furthermore, three types of cloning are recognized. These are;
1. Molecular (Recombinant DNA technology) cloning
2. Reproductive (embryo) cloning
3. Therapeutic (biomedical) cloning
('Types of Cloning', Roslin Institute (Escocia) 2005)
1. Molecular cloning
Molecular cloning, also known as 'gene cloning' or 'recombinant DNA technology', involves the process of creating multiple copies of a defined DNA sequence. In scientific terms, it entails the transfer of an interested DNA fragment from one organism to a self-replicating genetic element (such as a bacterial plasmid), which then may be propagated into a foreign host cell.
Molecular cloning may be utilized to amplify DNA fragments containing whole genes or amplify DNA sequences such promoters (the region of the DNA responsible for transcription). One of the more notable applications of molecular cloning is genetic finger printing, but it may also be used to produce large scale proteins.
('Cloning Fact Sheet', Human Genome Project Information 2009)
In order to amplify DNA sequences, the defined sequence must be linked to an origin of replication, that is, a sequence of DNA capable of directing the propagation of itself and any linked sequence. However, a number of other features are required and a variety of specialised cloning vectors (small pieces of DNA, in which a foreign DNA fragment may be inserted into) must exist, thus allowing protein expression, tagging, single stranded RNA and DNA, as well as other various manipulations.
Cloning of any DNA fragment (molecular cloning) essentially involves the following five steps; Fragmentation, Ligation, Transformation, Transfection, Screening/Selection.
('Recombinant DNA; The Polymerase Chain Reaction', Chantler, P. 2004)
Firstly, the chromosomal DNA of interest must be isolated to provide a DNA segment of suitable size (DNA Fragmentation). This is achieved through restriction endonucleases, which are enzymes that cut single or double-stranded DNA at specific recognition nucleotide sequences (restriction sites). Ligation of DNA fragments to a vector then follows, where the fragmented DNA is inserted into a vector (i.e. plasmids are commonly used) and then the vector is linearised using the same restriction enzyme.
The ligation product (plasmid) is then incubated with DNA ligase, thus transforming into bacterium plasmid for propagation. Following transformation, the vector with the DNA insert is then transfected into cells by means of either chemical sensitivation of the cells or electroporation. Finally, the transfect cells are cultured and allowed to grow. Figure 2 to the right, summarises the key steps in molecular (recombinant DNA technology) technology using the bacterium E. coli as the plasmid vector.
('Chapter 8: Recombinant DNA technology and molecular cloning', Proctor, J. 2006)
2. Reproductive (Embryo) Cloning
Reproductive cloning (also known as organism cloning) is the production of a genetic duplicate of an existing organism. It is a technology that has been used to generate animals, which have the same nuclear DNA as another pre-existing animal. 'Dolly the Sheep' as mentioned previously on page 3, is an example of reproductive cloning.
('Cloning Fact Sheet', Human Genome Project Information 2009)
Reproductive cloning creates organisms which are genetically identical, most commonly through a method known as 'somatic cell nuclear transfer' (SCNT). SCNT entails the transfer of a nucleus (genetic material) from a donor adult cell (somatic cell) to an egg (ovum), whose nucleus has been removed. As a result, reproductive cloning is commonly considered as an asexual propagation due to the fact that no inter-gamete come in contact or no fertilisation undertakes. ('About Reproductive Cloning', Centre for Genetics and Society 2008)
After the transfer of the nucleus to the egg has successively taken place, the 'reconstructed egg' is then treated with chemicals or alternatively, an electric current (shock) to thus stimulate cell division. Once the egg begins to divide normally (successively) and the pre-embryo reaches a suitable stage, it is then transferred to the uterus of a surrogate female host and continues to develop until birth. Figure 3 below, illustrates the steps involved in reproductive (embryo) cloning.
Artificial embryo splitting or embryo twinning may also be a resulting method of cloning from SCNT. In this instance, before the egg with the donor cell's nucleus is transferred, it is split in the maturation. If the split egg is successfully transferred to the surrogate female, the result is monozygotic (identical) embryos/twins.
Although it all seems like a relatively simple process, there a limitations involved in SCNT that prohibits a high successive rate of the procedure, as well as creating perfect copies of the somatic cell of the nucleus. ('Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer', Genetic Science Learning Centre 2010)
Stresses that are placed on both the egg cell and the introduced nucleus are enormous and have lead to high loss in resulting cells. This low successive rate is observed through 'Dolly the Sheep', where she was born after 277 eggs were used, thus creating only 29 viable embryos. From these 29 embryos, three survived at birth and only one (Dolly) survived to adulthood. It is believed that the biochemistry involved in the reprogramming of differentiated somatic cell nucleus' and the activation (i.e. electric current) the receipt egg has caused the high rates of death, deformity and disability among the cloned organisms.
Another limitation in SCNT is that not all of the donor cell's genetic information is transferred. This is because only the clone's chromosomal or nuclear DNA is the same as the donor and some of the clone's genetic material comes from the mitochondria in the cytoplasm of the enucleated egg. Therefore, hybrid cells retain those mitochondrial structures which originally belonged to the egg. As a result, the cloned organisms such as Dolly, which are born from SCNT are not a perfectly genetic copy of the adult donor who supplied the nucleus.
('Limitations of Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer', 2010)
Therapeutic (Biomedical) cloning
Therapeutic cloning ('embryo cloning') is the production of human embryos for use in research. The concept is not create cloned humans, but rather to harvest stem cells that then can be used to study human devolpement and treatment of diseases. Stem cells found in all multicellular organisms are very practical as biomedical researches can use stem cells to generate virtually any type of specialised cell in the human anatomy. ('Cloning Fact Sheet', Human Genome Project Information 2009)
It is identical to SCNT in the early stages of the process, however that the stem cells are extracted after the egg has been successively dividing for about 5 days. The egg at this stage of extraction is known as blastocyst and once the stem cells are extracted, the embryo is destroyed and has raised a variety of ethical concerns. The contrast in the stages involved reproductive (embryo) cloning and human therapeutic (biomedical) cloning is seen in figure 4, to the right. ('What is Cloning?', Robinson, B. 2007)
The extracted stem cells are then encouraged to grow with the intent of producing human tissue or a whole organ that would be used to transplant back into the person, whom supplied the DNA in the first place (the person of the donor adult cell's nucleus).
The Importance of Cloning Technology
As mentioned above, cloning has the inconceivable potential that would not only salvage endangered organisms from extinction but even prolong human life.
Recombinant DNA technology or molecular cloning is critically important for learning about and understanding other related technologies, such as gene therapy, genetic engineering of organisms and sequencing genomes. Gene therapy has be used to treat and identify certain genetic conditions, whilst gene sequencing has enabled relative success during fragmentation of cells. Also, before the advent of gene technology, large proteins such insulin, human growth hormone, cytokines (cell growth stimulants) and several anti-cancer drugs, needed to be purified from their natural tissue sources. This proved to not only be a difficult and inefficient process but also expensive. Through the use of recombinant methods, biomedical companies can now prepare and synthesise these vital proteins, which are more efficient and highly purified, more easily and inexpensive today.
Although, reproductive cloning has proved not be a very successful method of cloning, it has provided a hope which reaches amazing heights. Reproductive cloning has enabled the possibility to reproduce animals with special qualities. For example, reproductive cloning could create drug-producing animals or even animals that have been genetically altered to serve as models for studying human disease, consequently saving millions of lives.
Reproductive cloning also promises to repopulate endangered animals or animals that have difficulty breeding. Although it has an encouraging reward, cloning extinct animals presents a much greater challenge to scientists, as the egg and the surrogate needed to create the cloned embryo would be of a species different from the clone.
In the instance of therapeutic cloning technology, it reassures that hopefully one day soon, whole human organs from single cells may be produced to replace damaged cells in degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.
Although a significant amount of work is needed to be done before therapeutic cloning can become a realistic option for the treatment of disorders, it would surely be the most remarkable innovation in medical history.