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Biotechnology in the earlier times used to refer to the use of microorganisms grown in vats for the production of materials on large-scale basis. The modern definition of biotechnology however, is the use of living organisms or their products to modify human health and the human environment. It is scientists using living organisms to attain practical purposes. These organisms can provide innovative methods of production and result in new products (Brown, 2001). It is a phenomenon that can be applied in various fields such as health, agriculture, the environment protection, pharmacy and medicine. It has evolved and flourished from prehistoric times in many ways (Clark, & Pazdernik, 2009).
The field of biotechnology has been part of the lives of humans for many years. It is a process that has aided in the formation of products that are still widely used today such as cheese, wine, beer and bread through the use of microbes like bacteria or fungi (Brown, 2001). As time went on, domestication and selective breeding of some animals and plants was possible through biotechnology in order to deliver human requirements. Initially, biotechnology began with the conversion of fruit juices to wine, milk to cheese or yoghurt and malt to beer. All this was possible through the process of fermentation. With biotechnology, people began to realize that soft bread could be made instead of thin cracker-looking like bread. Animal breeders were able to increase traits they wanted in their breed and decrease the traits that they didn't need (Clark, & Pazdernik, 2009).
In today's world technology advancement such as genetic modification and engineering have pioneered new knowledge, products and methods for the development of society. For instance, new vaccines to prevent disease; genetically modified plants with resistance to pests; repair of damaged organs and tissues and improved detection of diseases; treatments for human infertility; bacteria capable of cleaning up oil spills; and environmentally friendly biofuels and biodegradation (Alam, 2009).
Biotechnology in the formation of vaccines
There are various routes to take for the synthesis of vaccines. One method is through the separation of a pure antigen using a specific monoclonal antibody. Specific genes are isolated and inserted into the DNA of microbes which will serve as factories for the production of the desired antigen. The antigen produced is then separated from the other products of the cell through a product of biotechnology, monoclonal antibody which recognizes the antigen. This technique has been utilized in cases of hepatitis B virus and malaria parasite (Alam, 2009).
An antigen can also be synthesized with the help of a cloned gene. In addition, many of the eukaryotic genes have been cloned from genomic DNA. Of those that have been cloned, there are a number of genes that code for specific antigens. Those antigens have been used for the preparation of vaccines. For e.g. Hepatitis B vaccine was synthesized from the Hepatitis B virus that was cloned in a plasmid and then underwent propagation in Escherichia coli (Alam, 2009).
Finally, peptides can also be used as vaccines. It is not the amino acid sequence but the structure of the protein that gives it its immunogenic properties. Therefore, it is important to locate parts of the protein that has effect on its immunogenic response. Those regions can be identified by gene coding for the protein. Initially, the clone gene of the protein is made into fragments using the enzyme DNAase I. It is then cloned in lambda phage where the plaques with different cloned fragments are screened using a specific monoclonal antibody. This is done so it neutralizes the pathogen. It is concluded than any fragment which reacts with the antibody is synthesizing the immunogenic peptide fragments that can then be sequenced. Through this method, the identification of 14 amino acid long immunogen of the envelope protein in Feline leukaemia virus was possible. It had a corresponding synthetic peptide which according to findings competes with virus for the antibody (Alam, 2009).
Eluting a protein from major histocompatiblity complex molecules is another approach taken to determine the immunogenic region of a protein in a pathogen. Different MHC alleles bind with different proteins. The purification step is carried out through the use of specific T cells. Once the MHC molecules are purified out, the peptides are eluted from them and sequenced. Finally, the sequenced peptides form the synthetic peptides which are then utilized as vaccines (Alam, 2009).
Overall, biotechnology opens doors for the production of synthetic vaccines. This is of great advantage because synthetic vaccines are cheaper to produce than vaccines that require microorganisms in the long run.
Biotechnology in the removal of oil and grease deposits
Oil spills are a major environmental hazard whether they are on land or on aquatic habitats. Pollution of this sort not only kills organisms living in water but also poses a major health hazard for people living nearby. Genetic engineering has allowed the production of genetically engineered oil utilizing microorganisms that have a fast growth rate on oil thereby increasing the biodegradation process. They are mixed with straw which is responsible for absorbing the oily water whereas the microorganisms degrade oil into non-toxic material (Alam, 2009).
Initially, chemical dispersants were used for the purpose of removing oil. However, like many chemicals they are toxic and stay in the environment for a long period of time. Cleaning the oil spill area and washing from the gravel is expensive, time-consuming and not very efficient. Therefore, biotechnology has become a big solution for this and many other environmental problems faced today. Some microorganisms for example Pseudomonas aeruginosa is capable of producing surface active compounds. This leads to reduced surface tension of oil and water which makes the removal of oil from water much easier. In addition, it is also a technique that uses a compound that is biodegradable and not poisonous or toxic to the environment (Alam, 2009).
Biotechnology in reducing the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers
Overuse of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers has become a big problem as their degradation results in the release of toxic materials in to the environment (Brown, 2001). Bacterial and viral pesticides have been developed through biotechnology. Bio-fertilizers are nutrient inputs of biological origin that are important in supporting plant growth which is generally achieved by the addition of microbial inoculants as a source of bio-fertilizers. Bio-fertilizers are broken down into four categories namely symbiotic nitrogen fixers, asymbiotic nitrogen fixers, phosphate solubilising bacteria and finally organic fertilizers (Alam, 2009).
Rhizobium sp., Bradyrhizopium sp. would be examples of symbiotic nitrogen fixers that are used as bio-fertilizers. Nitrogen fixation is most productive when there is a symbiotic relationship between plants and microorganism involved. Plants provide energy and oxygen for nitrogen fixation while microorganism is involved in the reduction of nitrogen to ammonia (Alam, 2009).
Azobacter sp., Azospirillum sp. are asymbiotic nitrogen fixers which would convert nitrogen in its gas state to nitrogenous compounds directly. Upon the death of these microorganisms, the soil is enriched with their compounds improving its physical properties (Alam, 2009).
Phosphate solubilising bacteria are bacteria that are able to convert non-available inorganic phosphorus present in the soil to organic or inorganic form of phosphate that can be utilized. Examples would be Thiobacillus and Bacillus. Siderophores which chelate with iron thereby making it unavailable to pathogenic bacteria are also produced by these bacteria. Siderophores are iron-binding low molecular weight (400- 1,000 Daltons) peptides and are synthesized by some soil bacteria (Alam, 2009).
Organic fertilizers come from organic waste which is then used as fertilizers. For example, animal dung such as cow dung and elephant dung, urine, urban garbage, sewage, crop residues and oil cakes. All these wastes are capable of being converted in to organic manures which can be of great use (Alam, 2009).
Bio-fertilizers are far more preferable for use as opposed to chemical fertilizers. This is due to their ability to improve the tolerance and resistance of plants against toxic heavy metals. Moreover, saline or alkaline soil can be reclaimed through the use of bio-fertilizers. In addition, bio-fertilizers are easy and cheap to produce yet another quality they posses encouraging their increased use. Finally, bio-fertilizers increase fertility, texture and water holding capacity of the soil by the year (Alam, 2009).
Although bio-fertilizers are full of great qualities, there is also a down-side experienced. The use of bio-fertilizers alone does not provide enough of the nutrient that plants require. Hence impressive and satisfying results observed when using chemically synthesized fertilizers is not witnessed when using bio-fertilizers (Alam, 2009).
Biotechnology in the formation of pest resistant plants
Although biotechnology offers ways to reduce use of chemical fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides it also promotes them. Herbicide-tolerant crops are another product of biotechnology. Herbicide-tolerant crops allow farmers to increase the amount of herbicides used since the plants and crops are resistant to them and won't be damaged. This however is a quick-fix and not a long term solution. Moreover, continuous application of herbicides results in the weeds becoming resistant rendering them ineffective. It is seen that herbicide resistant weeds have already risen in areas where herbicide is used heavily (Alam, 2009).
Bacillus thuringiensis is a microorganism that is extensively used in the agriculture industry for its insecticidal activity in the efforts to reduce chemical insecticides. Genes responsible for its resistant to insects have been isolated and been placed in walnut, tomato and tobacco plants to name a few. Similar to the case of herbicides, extensive use of these insecticides is going to result in some insect populations becoming resistant to the B.t. toxin. It is observed that some insect populations such as diamondback moth have become resistant to the B.t toxin. This would be a great disadvantage for agriculture as it would result in the loss of a safe and important bio-control agent (Alam, 2009).
Viruses pose a serious threat to crops and the need for viricides has always existed. However, there haven't been any chemical viricides that plants can tolerate. There have been attempts to produce plants containing a virus gene which will then produce a viral protein. As is the case with vaccinations, this permits the plant to fight attack by that virus. Although this method has its advantages short term, its effect in the long term is not assured. The rate at which viruses might become resistant to virus genes inserted into resistant plants is not well known. So far, virus-resistant plants in potatoes and tomatoes have been developed (Alam, 2009).
Biodegradation in the restoration of degraded lands
Restoration of lost land due to urbanization of today can occur through the manipulation of biological systems using biotechnology. One approach is to use micro-propagation and mycorrhiza for reforestation. Micro-propagation is defined as the production of a large number of individual plants from a small piece of plant tissue cultured in a nutrient medium. Through this method, approximately 500 million strong and diverse plants capable of growing well on degraded lands have been produced. Survival, endurance and growth of the plants is enhanced through mycorrhizae which is a symbiotic relationship between plants and microorganism as it allows for the uptake of nutrients and water. In addition, the root is protected from pathogens and has increased life expectancy (Alam, 2009).
Biotechnology has also allowed the formation of plants that can withstand abiotic stress meaning factors such as salinity and acidity. Genetic engineering is hoped to help in isolating genes responsible for the tolerant attributes that will result in the development of salt tolerant or acid tolerant plants. Countries like Ethiopia and Kenya have utilized Triticale, a synthetic crop capable of growing on dry, acid and alkaline soils. Plant species such as tomato, rice and barely have been capable of tolerating abiotic stress such as aluminum toxicity through in vitro selection (Alam, 2009).
Biodiversity is one of the methods that can be used to determine the health of the ecosystem because it indicates the variation level of living organisms. The breakdown of habitats has resulted in concern regarding maintenance of biodiversity. Biotechnology and biodiversity are inter-dependent since biotechnology maintains biodiversity and biodiversity provides genes from wild species for biotechnology exercises. Conservation of biotechnology is accomplished through the establishment of "gene banks" resulting in conservation. In situ conservation would consist of conserving plants and animals in their regular habitat and ecosystems. Ex situ conservation would be accomplished through the use of sample populations which will then establish the "gene banks". This would include zoos, national parks and resource centers. Conservation of plant and animal species is accomplished through the tissue culture method, embryo transfer and artificial insemination (Alam, 2009).
Removal and recovery of crucial metals from contaminated degraded lands
Water that has been used in domestic and industrial processes consists of heavy metals. The use of this water for irrigation purposes results in the contamination of soils. As a result, biotechnological procedures are being developed through the use of specific modified microorganisms to prevent the contamination as well as restore the already contaminated soils. For instance, wood rotting macro fungus, Ganoderma lucidum has high capacity to absorb heavy metals. Therefore, it is used to control contamination that occurs by heavy metals in water (Alam, 2009).
The contamination and pollution occurs through a series of steps. All living organisms in one way or another are exposed to metals. Bioaccumulation is the process by which all the exposed metals accumulate. As exposure increases with time the concentration of the heavy metals increases and this process is referred to as biomagification. This is a process that increases in concentration as the food chain gets higher. This means that man gets the highest exposure to the heavy metals. Biomethylation whereby methyl groups are transferred from organic compounds to metals is carried out both by microbes found in the soil and in the water (Alam, 2009).
The absorption of metals carried out by plants not only controls water pollution but also aids in the recovery of metals that are crucial in industries. These plants can be phytoplanktons which are plants that float on water surface or benthics which are plants that are attached to the bottom of the surface. Algal species such as Chlorella vulgaris can strongly absorb heavy metals such as copper and mercury. Fungal species such as Rhizopus and Pencilium can also absorb metals such as lead and mercury. E. coli, Bacillus circulans and other bacterial species are also able to collect metals on their cell walls however the process is complicated and occurs through a series of steps. Some microorganisms are able to transfer the metals from their cell walls to the intra/inter cellular space and their organelles. All plants have phytochelatin which serves as a common buffering molecule crucial in maintaining homeostasis of metals. It is a metal chelating protein constituting of high amount of cysteine. This gives it the ability for synthesize a salt metal complex through SH groups. This also means that it combines metal ion with a chemical compound resulting in a ring structure. All these qualities make the use of phytochelatin as a biomarker for metal pollution detection very high (Alam, 2009).
Removal of heavy metals with the aid of microorganisms involves four major mechanisms namely adsorption, complexation, precipitation and finally volatilization. Adsorption is the process through which the positively charged metal ions are bound to the negatively charted surfaces of the microorganisms. Organic acids such as citric acid and lactic acid produced as a result of complexation are responsible for the chelating of the metal ions. This is then followed by the precipitation of the heavy metal ions in the form of hydroxides or sulfates. This is done through microorganisms that have products such as ammonia and organic bases. For example, in yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae removal of metals is done by their precipitation as sulphides e.g. Cu2+ is precipitated as copper sulphide (Alam, 2009).
Ethical issues in biotechnology
Although biotechnology can be used for the improvement of lifestyle, it can also be used irresponsibly and there have been few concerns raised. For instance, research for the synthesis of plants with greater resistance to the negative effects of pesticides is being conducted (Brown, 2001). However, this would still require the use of pesticides and encourage the use of more as they will eventually become resistant to those pesticides. Chemical companies produce plants that can better resist pesticides as opposed to synthesizing plants that can repel pests themselves to ensure that farmers will continue on buying their products (Brown, 2001).
Another concern is the impact that genetically engineered organisms will have on the ecosystem. Production of unexpected toxins and allergens in the food consumed, production of super weeds that will threaten the present plant species and reduction in the biological diversity (Brown, 2001). The concept of manipulating genes of animals to control product received also presents the idea of manipulating genes of humans to control traits of the person born to society. This is a very controversial issue and anyone interested in entering the field of biotechnology should strongly consider social, ethical and environmental implications of gene manipulation before making the decision (Brown, 2001).
Record shows that field of biotechnology has a bright future ahead. It is one of the fastest growing sectors in the area of research and development. It has wide employment opportunities waiting to be explored due to the unique impact it has made and continues to make on mankind. Biotechnology is an area of science that is connected to other fields like computers, industry and agriculture. A person with a degree in biotechnology can obtain jobs in drug and pharmaceutical research, environment control, waste management, food processing and bio-processing companies to name a few. For instance, expertise in biotechnology in bio-processing industry would be useful in areas such as enzyme technology, paper technology, metabolic engineering and finally protein engineering. Within those companies, one might be employed in the planning, management or production department (Alam, 2009).
Although a career in biotechnology goes in many different directions, research is a big part of it. The area of research can vary from medicine to agriculture and pharmaceuticals. The department of research is worthwhile and fulfilling as it is highly being used to improve diagnostic methods for diseases like AIDS, cancer and genetically linked diseases (Brown, 2001). It has also led to the development of various vaccines. In addition, funding is also available. Gene therapy, genetic counselling, gene testing and much other biological advancement present today requires tools provided by biotechnology. Engineers are also needed as their knowledge is important in development of instruments, bioprocess chambers and fermentation technology (Alam, 2009).
The field of agriculture also demands biotechnologists as they are responsible for the development of agriculture. This is done through the use of tissue culture, improvement of animal species and maintaining soil balance. Development of bio-insecticides and bio-fertilizers also lie within this field. Outside of medicine and agriculture, biotechnology also contributes to the field of law. A lawyer with biotechnology specialization would be able to handle situations regarding the Intellectual property rights and copyrights of biotechnological products. Genetic and Paternity testing also requires a person to have knowledge of both law and biotechnology. Moreover, Forensic science uses DNA finger printing to identify and catch criminals in appropriate timing (Alam, 2009).
For one to be employed in the field of biotechnology having undergraduate courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology is the minimum requirement. To be eligible for post graduate studies a Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Technology in Science is required. Specializations in Marine biology, Animal husbandry, Agriculture, Biotechnology or Biomedical engineering are also available. The field of biostatistician requires a combination of a master's degree in statistics with biotechnology. The field of bioinformatics requires one to have a degree in computers or biometrics (Alam, 2009).
Although biotechnology is crucial and rewarding field of employment, it has its disadvantages. Firstly, it requires level of education beyond undergraduate such as masters or Ph.D. This is because the undergraduate level provides the background and theory required, however, there isn't any practice gained at the research methodology level that is necessary in the real world. Hands-on laboratory experience is required in the work field and this does not give a student with only undergraduate level any other choice but to proceed in further education (Alam, 2009).
Biotechnology is a very wide field that can be applied in human health care for production of vaccines, enzymes, hormones as well as detection and treatment of diseases. It can also be applied in agricultural and human health care for production of transgenic animals, food additives, biopesticides and biofertilizers. Energy and environmental management is another area where biotechnology contributes specifically through enhanced oil recovery, extraction of low-grade metals and recovery of valuable metals (Brown, 2001). Some fields in which the research of biotechnology companies is focused on are anticancer therapeutics, chromatography, diagnostics, enzymology and cellular biology. Overall, biotechnology is a field of science that has a very bright future (Brown, 2001). There are many opportunities available and for those who are committed, dedicated and passionate it will definitely be a very rewarding career.