Of late, there has been a rise of careers in the field of science writing.
Let us first tackle what I mean when I say ‘science writing’. I do not mean scientific writing, which refers to the technical writing of scientists whose audience are their peers, nor do I mean science journalism, which involves reporting science to the public.
Science writing is writing about science for general readers. As part of my work at Xamcheck, I have been involved in creating science content for school textbooks. That exercise, however, has been limited by curricula and other structures one expects a school textbook to follow.
This, therefore, shall be my first attempt at science writing, even though I have been writing science for a while.
At a recent family occasion, I met a young cousin bursting with questions about what it is that one studies in biotechnology. My introversion coupled with how flustered I get trying to explain something verbally was a sure-fire formula for embarrassment for me.
Determined not to accept defeat, I decided I would find him a book that could explain what biotechnologists studied and did. After a vain attempt at finding such a book, I had no choice left but to write something myself. So this article shall attempt to explain what biotechnology is, so my young cousin shall not only be able to comprehend it, but hopefully also find it an engaging source of learning that piques his interest further.
My mind first goes back to when my aunt, uncle, my cousin and I were travelling back home after visiting a small rural ancestral village. They had the same question for me — what is biotechnology? what do you study? And I remember feeling a mixture of excitement and a sinking feeling in my stomach. I went on and on about what courses I take and what my thesis project was about, and what I learnt in my internships and what my friends worked on, and so on.
Today, I would tell you simply, that biotechnology is the use of biological organisms to develop products and technologies.
Wait.. what? That simple!? Yes!
The most important, widespread, and unarguably the longest known ‘products’ of biotechnology have been the domestication of animals and the cultivation of plants. Since the era of early humans, we have employed the methods of artificial selection to give rise to suitable ‘produce’.
You’re probably wondering how something like the domestication of animals and the cultivation of crops falls under the cap of biotechnology. The reproduction of animals and growth of plants in the wild would not be considered biotechnology. Pay attention to what I said — it is the process of artificial selection with the intention of putting the biological organisms to specific use that makes the domestication of animals and the cultivation of crops to be considered biotechnology.
How does artificial selection work?
Artificial selection is a process in which people (instead of nature — therefore, artificial) decide (or select) which plants and animals get to reproduce.
To understand how people can select which plants and animals get to reproduce, let us understand something called variation.
Take a look around your classroom.
There are people of different heights, different skin colour, different eye colour, different blood groups. These naturally existing differences in a population are called variations. Some variations are continuous, like height and skin colour; others are discontinuous, like eye colour and blood groups.
Some variations are passed down from parents to children. Some variations are gained because of environmental factors. Some variations are affected by both. For e.g., both height and skin colour can be influenced, both, by what has been passed by parents, and by the environment. Eye colour and blood groups, on the other hand, are not influenced by the environment.
Just like the people in your classroom show variation, plants and animals in the wild also show variation. Take the example of a wild banana.
The wild banana in the image above looks nothing like the bananas we are so used to seeing every day and that we so love eating.
But these wild banana plants showed several variations (just like the students in your classroom). And one of those variations was a variety that had small seeds, like the ones we have today. And a banana farmer from many years ago, who was tired of eating bananas with too many seeds, decided to only grow those wild bananas which had the small seed variation. He decided which plants got to grow and reproduce. He artificially selected for the small seed bananas.
Similarly, imagine a herd of cows. One particular cow, let’s call her Mona, gives much more milk than all the other cows. Her cowherd knows nothing of variation or artificial selection. But he makes a lot of money selling milk from his cows. To increase his profit margin further, he decides he only wants calves from Mona. Almost all of Mona’s calves give him much more milk than the other cows. Our business-minded cowherd keeps picking the calf that gives the most milk to breed his next generation of calves. He artificially selects for the highest milk-yielding cow.
OK! I got the hang of this. This is about the cultivation and domestication. But what about the real biotechnology stuff? This is real biotechnology. But, yes, I know what you’re talking about.
I believe you have come across the famous stories surrounding the discovery of the smallpox vaccine by Edward Jenner or the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming.
These are just a few of the most famous discoveries that helped the advent of biotechnology, although that term was yet to be coined. Here is a more detailed list of the innovations in the history of biotechnology.
Let us look at some of them:
- Penicillin — Before antibiotics were available, infections almost always meant certain death. The first person to receive penicillin and the first patient to receive penicillin both died. The first patient to receive penicillin, policeman Albert Alexander, was pruning roses when a thorn scratched his cheek and a week later he found himself fatally ill with an infection. Having decided that he would die anyway, Oxford researcher Howard Florey and his team decided to give him penicillin. To everyone’s surprise, the policeman got better, until they ran out of penicillin five days later and he died. This incident shot penicillin into the limelight and researchers and pharmaceutical companies began to experiment ways to synthesize large amounts of penicillin at a cheap cost, especially since World War II was around the corner and the British wanted to make penicillin available to its soldiers.
- Diabetes — For several years after the discovery of diabetes and its connection to insulin, patients had to take insulin purified from cattle and pigs. But there was always a risk, because you never knew who might be allergic and develop fatal complications. That was until 1978, when ‘genetically engineered’ bacteria E.coli produced ‘human’ insulin. What this meant was that the human genes that were responsible for producing insulin in the human body were identified, cut out using molecular scissors, and introduced into the E.coli bacteria. These bacteria could now produce insulin in the form it exists in the human body. Imagine what it does for the estimated over 400 million patients of diabetes today (though not all of them need to take insulin to control diabetes).
- Breast cancer — Breast cancer is an illness with a long history. The theories regarding its cause varied from theories about compression from tight clothing to theories about a causative virus. For over 200 years, it was believed that the removal of the tumour and the nearby lymph nodes by surgery was the only cure. In the first half of the twentieth century, scientists had identified several substances (including several chemicals, some viruses, and radiation) that were shown to cause cancer — these were called carcinogens. Some forms of cancer also seemed to run in families. The discovery of the structure of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953 led to the subsequently greater understanding of heredity and genetics. Scientists were able to use the latest developments in physics, chemistry, biology and technology to pinpoint with great accuracy the genes and mutations that caused cancer. Two specific families of genes, called the oncogenes and the tumour suppressor genes were identified. Changes in the chemical structures and functions of these genes were recognized to be causing cancer. For instance, in 1994–1995, mutations in two genes, the BRCA1 and BRCA2, were identified as key factors in causing breast and ovarian cancer. Today, it is possible to test for these mutations early and opt for a preventive mastectomy and oophorectomy. There are also many other diagnoses and treatments available for several forms of cancer today.
- Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) — For a while now, there has been a lot of activism against genetically modified organisms. Firstly, what are they? How are they made? And why are they bad? (Or, are they?) GMOs are organisms whose genetic material has been altered by genetic engineering techniques — like the E.coli used to produce human insulin. I encourage you to learn more about GMOs and GM food. We shall learn more about this in the days to come.
These are just a few stories plucked from a whole wide range of history. As you can no doubt see, biotechnology is a vast and a varied field. It is also absolutely essential for life to progress.
Let this be today’s takeaway — life sciences are a fascinating study. Let not the facts in the textbook be hard facts — learn their stories, weave new stories around them. They shall remain lessons for life, I promise.