Overview

Technician Brandy Jones examines a rose plant that began as cells grown in a tissue culture.

The exact definition of biotechnology is difficult to pin down due to the wide variety of applications it is used for and the wide variety of fields it draws on. One very broad way to describe “biotech” (the shortened version of the term) is that it is the purposeful use of living organisms by humans. This definition sets biotech apart from the type of technology used to manufacture your led tv and other products used in an everyday context.

A slightly more elaborate definition of biotech would be more or less as follows: biotechnology is a field of applied biology that relies on the procedure of using living organisms and biological processes to aid in meeting demands set by the disciplines of engineering, technology, medicine and the commercial industrial environment.

There are many areas in which biotech stands to offer new solutions to both old and recent problems. There is, however, one field in which biotech has revolutionised our ability to act on the world in which we find ourselves: this revolution has occurred in cellular biology. Somewhat more complex than researching Stellenbosch property on a lazy Sunday afternoon, this site will endeavour to explain the fundamentals of cellular theory in the context of biotechnology.

Cellular theory postulates that cells are the fundamental units of any organism and that their functioning and placement will, ultimately, determine the organism. By gaining an understanding of the detailed workings of cells, and in particular of cellular DNA, biological technologies have enabled a plethora of sudden treatments for diseases and syndromes. By consciously manipulating the contents of a cell, and thereby its functioning, errors in the cell can be corrected (gene therapy), and diseases cured.

The discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick, and the unravelling of questions that pertain to genetic encoding and the elements that make up genes, have allowed contemporary life scientists to clone complex animals and even engineer crops that are resistant to certain natural forces like pests and even harsh weather conditions. Although cloning is only a small part of biotech, genetic engineering is a constantly growing research field as the implications and applications for the commercial environment are extraordinary.

A very basic form of cloning is planting a leaf from a type of plant that can develop roots from a single leaf/ part of the parent plant. Violets are an example of this. The daughter plant has the exact same genetic code (in the DNA) as its parent plant, and is therefore its clone. The study of molecular biology, and genetics in particular, means that this basic process can be mirrored at the molecular level: certain genes from a parent cell can be identified, isolated and transplanted into a new cell. The new gene is placed in the DNA of the new cell, and that cell then has the genetic characteristic desired in its donor cell.

There can be little doubt that biotech represents a nexus of several sciences, and that this new science will produce products and insights as profound as any one of the sciences that make biotech research possible. The field is allowing us to examine the origins and processes of life at the atomic level, and utilises cutting edge developments in biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, computer science, and information technology. Biotech has been earmarked by many progressive thinkers as the field to watch in the 21st century: envisaged applications of the field (realisable in the foreseeable future) include foodstuff genetic engineering, advanced and ground-breaking medical treatments, the development of reliable and plentiful bio-fuels, nanotechnology, bio-robotics and prosthetics.