If you have read the previous pages on this website, hopefully you have a relatively clear idea of what biotech is. Nonetheless, it might be prudent to provide a very basic refresher of the central concept: Biotechnology is the use of living organisms and biological processes in the attempt to produce a desired result (this desired result is a range of possibilities, and includes the creation of a product, the modification of a product, the breakdown of a product, the curing of an illness, the rendering of a service, etc.). Looked at in another way, biotechnology is simply the use of biological phenomena as a tool in material production. The limits of the technology is as yet unknown. Imagine that one day one of the houses for sale in Pietermaritzburg is equipped with biologically engineered processes that make it a lovely environment to be in.
Biotech has 4 main areas of application: health care (that is, the medical sector); agriculture (biotech has generated much interest from crop producers); industrial processes (biodegradable plastics, vegetable oils, and bio-fuels); and conservation and wildlife management. Some widespread uses of biotech within the above mentioned sectors can be seen to include the directed use of organisms in the production of bread, beer and milk products like cheese and yoghurt. The mining industry has harnessed naturally occurring bacteria to perform bio-leaching, and other players within industry use biotech to recycle waste products, clean up sites contaminated by environmentally antagonistic chemicals (this is known as bioremediation), and treat waste products. In addition to this, biotech also has military purposes, most notably (and unfortunately) in the manufacturing of biological weapons.
The biotechnology industry has coined a series of terms that are used to refer to specific areas in which biotech already plays a significant role. The following is a list of these terms, specifying the areas to which they are applied:
- Blue Biotechnology: the term is used to describe the applications that biotech has for the marine environment and other water based (aquatic) phenomena
- Green Biotechnology: as one might guess, green biotech refers to biotechnology occurring in agriculture and environmental management. One, slightly controversial, example of biotech in agriculture is the genetic engineering of crops. Genetically modified (GM) crops are able to produce pesticides that resist insect attacks; environmentally damaging chemicals can therefore be foregone in favour of a less aggressive solution (this last point is, however, subject to much heated debate). Another example of biotech application in agriculture is the designing of transgenic plants that are able to grow in the absence or presence of certain specific chemicals. The next time you step out onto a pristine lawn fully kitted out in the appropriate sports equipment, imagine that grass you are standing on has been engineered, at a genetic level, to suit the purposes of your sport!
- Red Biotechnology: refers to the medical applications of biotech. This is a very exciting field that includes the engineering of organisms to produce antibiotics, the use of genetic code manipulation to produce cells used for gene therapy and even, possibly, the prevention of inherited diseases through gene identification, isolation, and destruction. There are many ethical debates with regards to genetic modification, especially when it comes to human genes. Whatever the implications of the ethical arguments entail, the very fact that such intervention is a possibility is somewhat staggering.
- Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field which endeavours to find solutions to biological problems using refined and much studied computational techniques. The result of this is that large amounts of biological data can be organised very quickly for analysis (which is also aided by computing). Whereas as there are many applications for bioinformatics in research and commercial environments, the field of genetics has benefited greatly from our ability to record, recall and interpret vast quantities of data.