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Applications of Modern Biotechnology

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Modern biotechnology, which is based on rDNA technology, exhibits a wide range of applications. The broad application areas of biotechnology include pharmaceutical and therapeutic research, disease diagnostics, crop improvement, vegetable oil, biofuels, and development of enviromental friendly products (for example biodegradable plastics). Some classic examples of successful application of biotechnology is provided . Thus, the applications of modern biotechnology mainly focus on the following major areas:

1. Medicine and health care 

2. Crop production and agriculture 

3. Food processing 

4. Environmental protection

Medicine and health care:

 Biotechnology techniques are used in the field of medicine for diagnosis via development of diagnostic tools and kits, which have proved helpful in detecting certain molecules and cellular components which are expressed in diseased conditions. Using rDNA technology, tools of bioinformatics, modern instrumentation and bioprocess technologies, synthetic drug analogs can be predicted and possibly synthesised, which may show improved disease treatment. Production of vaccines and gene therapy are also important applications of biotechnology in the field of medicine. Some of the major applications of modern biotechnology in the field of medicine are listed below: 

• Production of important therapeutic molecules: 

rDNA technology has been successfully applied for the development of biopharmaceuticals with therapeutic value. Different protein molecules which may act as drug molecules, are being expressed in heterologous systems such as microorganisms, plants (transgenic plants explained in the following section) etc. A number of therapeutic products including antibiotics and hormones have been produced using rDNA technology which are available in the market. A common example of therapeutic protein produced using rDNA technology is human insulin, used for the treatment of diabetes, a disease in which blood sugar levels are elevated. This presents a classic example of a human protein being expressed in a heterologous system such as Escherichia coli. At present, insulin is being produced predominantly in E. coli and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The human growth hormone is another example of successful production of desired proteins in different microbial host systems via rDNA technology. Many human proteins have also been expressed in milk of transgenic sheep and goat. For example, Food and Drug Administration, USA (FDA) has approved the production of blood anti-coagulant in milk of transgenic goats for human use. Currently, scientists are trying to develop such drugs against diseases like hepatitis, cancer and heart diseases, which are the leading causes of human mortality. 

• Gene therapy:

 This technology is most helpful in the treatment of diseases caused by gene defects such as cystic fibrosis, thalassemia, Parkinson’s disease, etc. Conceptualised in 1972, gene therapy involves delivery of required gene into a patient’s cell as a drug to treat disease, so that it replaces the function of the defective gene. The first attempt, although unsuccessful, was performed by Martin Cline in 1980 for treating β-thalassemia. The first successful report of gene therapy was achieved in 1990 when, Ashanthi De Silva was treated for Adenosine Deaminase deficiency [also called Adenosine Deaminase Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (ADA-SCID)] which is an autosomal recessive metabolic disorder that causes immunodeficiency. Russia approved Neovasculgen in 2011, as a first-in-class-gene therapy for peripheral artery disease.

 • Genetic testing: 

It is a type of medical test that helps in identifying the defects in an individual’s genetic composition such as chromosomal defects in gene and protein expression anomalies. It helps in determining a person’s chance of developing or passing on a specific disorder. Hundreds of genetic tests are currently in use and many are being developed. For example, genetic tests for phenylketonuria (patients lack enzyme needed to process the amino acid phenylalanine, which is responsible for normal growth) and congenital hypothyroidism (thyroid gland disorder) have been developed.

Crop Production and Agriculture:

 Biotechnology has played a major role in revolutionising agriculture by facilitating genetic manipulations of important crop plants, to develop biotic and abiotic stress resistance plants, and better quality products of food in terms of nutrition and longer shelf lives. The five major traits used for crop improvement are insect resistance, herbicide resistance, virus resistance, delayed fruit ripening and nutritional enhancement. Thus, transgenic plants (Genetically Modified Organisms; GMOs) harbouring these improved traits are good examples of the application of biotechnology in agriculture. Some examples describing the success stories of biotechnology are given below: Biotechnology for crop improvement

 • Biotechnology, based on rDNA technology, has immense applications in crop improvement. Although conventional plant breeding techniques have made considerable progress in the development of improved varieties, they have not been able to keep pace with the increasing demand for food, vegetables and fruits. Use of rDNA technology has successfully led to the development of a number of transgenic plants exhibiting resistance to pathogens, salt, cold, herbicide, etc. In these transgenic plants, useful genes have been stably incorporated into the plant genome which resulted in the stable expression of targeted gene product.

 • Among biotic stress resistant category, for example, virus-resistant plants have a viral coat protein gene which is overproduced that prevents the virus from reproducing in the host cell. Coat protein genes are involved in resistance against many viruses such as Papaya Ring Spot Virus, Cucumber Mosaic Virus, Tobacco Rattle Virus, and Potato Virus in these plants. 

• Crop losses from insect pests also result in devastating financial loss of farmers and may lead to starvation in developing countries. Spraying chemical pesticides is costly and it leads to potential health hazards and is costly and it leads to potential health hazards and may also pollute the environment. Genetically modified plants offering resistance to insect pathogen have been developed through rDNA technology. These plants help in bringing down or eliminating the application of chemical pesticides. One common example is Bt cotton. Bt is a toxic protein called Cry 1A(b), obtained from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, demonstrates insecticidal activity against larvae of moths and butterflies, beetles, cotton bollworms and caterpillars but are harmless to us. Thus, the gene coding for Bt toxin has been transferred and expressed in cotton. These transgenic cotton plants express Bt toxin which acts as insecticide. Similar to the Bt cotton, other plants including brinjal, corn (maize), potato, soybean, tomato, tobacco have also been developed expressing the Bt toxin.

Among abiotic stress resistant plants, resistance against chilling has been introduced into tobacco plants by introducing gene for glycerol-1-phosphate acyl-transferase enzyme from Arabidopsis. Similarly, Roundup-ready soybeans (Transgenic/GM soybeans) have been developed which are unaffected by the herbicide glyphosate, and therefore can be applied in selective killing of competing weeds. 

• Among the quality improvement category, a classic example is the development of Flavr Savr tomato. These tomatoes have extended shelf life due to delayed ripening . 

• Biotechnological tools have also been extensively used to improve the nutritional quality of different food crops. A classic example is the Golden Rice, which has high beta-carotene content (the precursor for vitamin A production in the human body) . The name comes from the colour of the transgenic grain due to over expression of beta-carotene, responsible for golden coloration.

 • The technique of plant tissue culture, i.e., culturing plant cells or tissues in artificial medium supplemented with required nutrients, has many applications in efficient clonal propagation (true to the type or similar) which may be difficult via conventional breeding methods. Many of the dry land legume species have been successfully regenerated from culture of cotyledons, hypocotyls, leaf, ovary, protoplast, petiole root, anthers, etc. Haploid generation through anther/ pollen culture is recognised as another important area in crop improvement. Storage of horticultural crops with recalcitrant seeds or perennial crops may be maintained via plant cell culture, which is of great practical importance. These techniques have successfully been demonstrated in a number of horticultural crops and now there are various germplasm collection centers globally.

Transgenic plants as systems for expression of
therapeutics

Plants can also be used as heterologous systems for expression of a therapeutic molecule via expressing the required gene(s) into the plant using rDNA technology. An example is the production of antibiotics particularly for animal use in stock feed plants. Stock feed plants are plant species that may be given to cattle and livestock as a food source. Examples of such stock feed are bamboo, citronella, andropogon, foxtail millet, wheat grass, rice straw, etc. Stockfeeds capable of stably expressing the desired antibiotic may be fed directly to animals. This technique is less expensive than traditional antibiotic production and administration. However, this practice raises many bioethical issues, especially in the arena of human use, because of possible development of drug resistant bacterial strains due to antibiotic overuse. Similarly, transgenic plants have been developed for production of edible vaccines by expressing antigenic proteins from pathogens into the edible parts of the plant, in a form that will retain its immunogenicity. Individuals are expected to be immunised by simply consuming such transgenic plants. Potato based vaccines against measles, cholera, Norfolk virus, etc., are under rigorous clinical trials. 

Biofuels These production can also be improved using biotechnology. These are produced through biological processes rather than a fuel produced by geological processes such as coal and petroleum. Biofuels can be derived directly from plants, or indirectly from agricultural, commercial and industrial wastes. Basically, it involves generation of biomass that can be converted to convenient energycontaining substances via different ways such as thermal conversion, chemical conversion, and biochemical conversion. This biomass conversion can result in fuels which are in solid, liquid, or gas form. Major types are bioethanol or biologically generated alcohols produced via fermentation of sugar and starches by micro-organisms. Bio-butanol, a biofuel, is often a direct replacement for gasoline.

 Biodiesel is the most common biofuel in Europe, produced from oils or fats using trans-esterification. Feed stocks for biodiesel include animal fats, vegetable oils, soy, rapeseed, Jatropha, hemp, etc. Other examples are bio-ethers and biogas. The first commercial-scale plants to produce biofuels from cellulose containing organic matter, have begun operating in the United States. In parts of Asia and Africa where drylands prevail, sweet sorghum is being investigated as a potential source of food, feed and fuel. Since the crop uses very little water, it is particularly suitable for growing in arid conditions. In India, and other places, sweet sorghum stalks are used to produce biofuel by squeezing the juice and then fermenting into ethanol. Several groups in various sectors are conducting research on Jatropha curcas, which produces seeds considered to be a viable source of biofuels feedstock oil. Current research focuses on improving the overall oil yield of Jatropha through biotechnological techniques.

Food processing The role of biotechnology in food processing is immense as discussed below: • Biotechnological tools can help in improving the edibility, texture, and storage of the food; prevention of mycotoxin production, extending shelf life and also to delay time dependent degradation of nutritional components of foodstuffs. • Almost one-third of the world’s diet consists of fermented food. • Protein engineering of microbial enzymes capable of improved fermentation are produced commercially at a large scale by culturing the microorganisms in tanks and industrial scale fermenters.

#Industrial scale production of fermented foods with added taste, nutrition and shelf life such as cheese, yoghurt, certain probiotics, buttermilk and other popular fermented products has also been made possible. 

Environmental protection :

Biotechnological tools and techniques are also very helpful in tackling issues related to environment and ecology. A special branch of science which applies biotechnology to study the natural environment, identifying optimum, but sustainable uses of plants, animals and microorganisms to develop green technology, and remediation of contaminated environments is known as Environmental Biotechnology. Some of the remarkable achievements obtained in environmental biotechnology are as follows:

 • Many eco-toxicological biomarkers are being used to indicate the effect of xenobiotics which are present in the environment as well as within an organism. Bio-markers are defined as any naturally occurring molecule which may indicate specific biological processes in response to any environmental or chemical stimuli. Many eco-toxicological biomarkers are developed which may prove helpful in indicating subtle changes in the immediate environment, which may otherwise be difficult to detect. For example, a reported gene, lux (which is responsible for emission of light), expressed in E. coli, acts as a bio sensor for detecting the mercury contamination. 

• Biotechnological applications may also be helpful in the process of cleaning up the hazardous substances in the environment by converting them into nontoxic or less toxic compounds. This is known as bioremediation. This process of clean-up exploits the potential of natural sources for bioremediation. Genetic engineering has been exploited to generate organisms specifically designed for bioremediation. Genes, which code for enzymes for degradation of pollutants or monitor their levels may be inserted into the organisms. An example of a degradation gene is biphenyl dioxygenase, which has been inserted in E.coli to degrade PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl). 

• Cultivable land area is often contaminated with heavy metals such as Cadmium, Mercury and Lead, which may prove detrimental for growth of crop plants and may even prove as a health hazard upon consumption. Many hyper-accumulator plants when grown on these contaminated soils, have the potential to soak up the heavy metals from the soil and sequester it in their cellular compartments, thereby phyto-remediating the soil. Examples of some hyper-accumulators are, Brassica napus, Helianthus annus, etc., for mercury and lead removal from contaminated soils. Extensive research is being carried out in identifying the genes responsible for tolerance of these plants to such hazardous heavy metals. 

• The application of environmental biotechnology will help to keep our environment safe and clean for future generations. It can provide alternative ways of adaptation to the changes in the environment. Multidisciplinary association between branches of science such as genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics, sequencing and imaging processes provide large amounts of information and novel ways to protect the environment.

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