The word “biotechnology” seems to be cropping up everywhere these days. But what is it? Very simply, biotechnology is the application of technology to the living world. It is the manipulation of living things to create products, processes, and services.
Some people have said that the twenty-first century is the century of biotechnology. But humans have been using biotechnology for a long time. For example, both yeast and mold are types of fungi, a kind of living creature. Yeast makes bread rise. Molds are important in making cheese. Bread and cheese are human-made products that require the manipulation of living things. They are examples of biotechnology that date back 6,000 years.
Karl Ereky, a Hungarian engineer, coined the word “biotechnology” in 1919. He intended it to mean all the ways that products are made with the help of living things. Today, many biotechnology products are made in ways that Ereky could not have imagined in 1919. Scientists have learned a lot in the more than eight decades since then.
Living things are also called organisms. Organisms are made of cells, tiny compartments that contain water and chemicals essential to life. Some organisms, like bacteria, have only one cell. The human body contains trillions of cells, and every one of these cells contains DNA.
DNA is short for deoxyribonucleic acid. It contains the instructions for making proteins. Proteins perform the work that takes place in cells. Different sections of DNA contain the instructions for different proteins. These sections are called genes. Genetics is the study of genes.
DNA is passed down from parents to their children. A child gets some of her DNA from her mother and some from her father. The DNA of two humans is much more similar to each other than the DNA of a human and a cow, or a cow and a tomato. But the relatively small differences in human DNA cause people to have often strikingly different characteristics. DNA determines hair and eye color, for example, as well as height and complexion.
Much of biotechnology involves manipulating DNA. This is often called genetic engineering. Researchers can take a useful gene from one organism and put it into a completely different organism. The new gene gives the organism new characteristics. It might make a plant larger or more nutritious. Scientists can also remove genes from an organism or change genes in an organism. Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have had their DNA altered in some way by biotechnology.
A good example of a GMO is golden rice, which is genetically engineered to boost its nutritional value. Golden rice contains three genes from other organisms—two from the daffodil and one from maize (corn). These genes give the rice plant the ability to make beta-carotene in the part of the plant that people eat. The human body turns beta-carotene into vitamin A. People in many developing countries do not get enough vitamin A. This deficiency can lead to blindness and other serious illnesses, even death. Researchers hope that golden rice can reduce the number of people with vitamin A deficiencies in areas where rice is a staple food.
Some GMOs, like golden rice, are intended for human consumption. Other GMOs are used to make different kinds of products. For example, researchers can modify bacteria to produce proteins and other chemicals that are useful to humans. These materials include drugs, vaccines, and food additives. Biotechnology may also be able to improve human health by providing patients with healthy genes to replace genes that are unhealthy and malfunctioning, resulting in disease.
Biotechnology is most often used to improve agriculture and human health, but biotechnology is also being used in other areas. Environmental biotechnology puts bacteria to work cleaning up pollution. Researchers are also trying to use bacteria to produce energy. Chapter 1 will look at some of these different areas of research.
With so much going on in biotechnology, the range of careers available is extremely wide. People are needed in the laboratory to create GMOs and gene therapies. But people also work in biotechnology factories, run tests of new drugs and other medical treatments, write about biotechnology, sell products, and make sure that biotechnology is safe. Chapter 2 explores some of these careers, and chapter 3 discusses the education needed to achieve them.
Biotechnology is a growing industry. It is also a controversial one. Some people believe that products made with biotechnology could be harmful to the environment or to human health. Other people worry that biotechnology may be used in ways that are unethical. Chapter 4 will take a closer look at some of these controversies. It will also explore what the future of biotechnology might look like and what new careers may be opening up.