One aspect of technology that has changed our lives to such an extent that we cannot survive without it has gone unnoticed, we have overshadowed the one solution that has put many of our worries at bay and for some people have made it possible to be around their loved ones for longer and rather healthier. What if this also promises to solve many of the global challenges that lie ahead of us?
Infamously called Biotechnology!
Its identity is ingrained in our mind as a mysterious field that deals with only Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or more like GM Crops. Several organisations and online forums have tagged Biotechnology to be unnatural and condemned its promotion. Because…….
What is Biotechnology?
In simple words, Biotechnology leverages biological systems to develop products such as antibiotics, chemicals, beverages, food, fuels etc. It plays an important role in the manufacturing, processing and packaging of products in various industries.
Shades of Biotechnology
From food and nutrition to healthcare and aquaculture to agriculture, it covers everything. We cannot overlook its presence in our lives.
Here is a glimpse of what Biotechnology has given us over the last few decades.
The world of Enzymes and Microorganisms
Enzymes and Microorganisms are everywhere. They form an important part of various industries such as food & beverage, agriculture, household care chemicals and so on. Enzymes are biological catalysts and are used to speed up processes. For example, there are naturally occurring enzymes in our stomach that ensure the food is broken down and converted into energy.
Two sets of enzymes, Proteases and Carbohydrases predominantly account for most of this market. Rennin (Chymosin, a type of protease) is used in the dairy industry for cheese production to coagulate milk. Earlier this enzyme was extracted from slaughtered calves stomach making the process cruel towards animals. However, since the 90's, the cheese industry adopted recombinant Chymosin as an effective alternative to other enzyme sources.
Enzymes are also used to enhance flavour, improve extraction processes, improve consistency in dairy and food products, tenderize meat etc.
Food and Beverage Industry
Seafood is a perishable product. Due to microbial activities and chemical reactions the product deteriorates quickly resulting in colour change, foul odour and change in taste. Biotech aids in assuring the quality and safety of seafood. It has provided us solutions to inhibit microbial growth and various chemical/biochemical reactions. Different types of protective cultures and antimicrobials are added to these products. They are used to increase the product’s shelf life, to inhibit spoilage and to eliminate pathogens.
Whether it’s a pint of beer or a fancy glass of wine, Yeast strains (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) have long been used in beer brewing and fermentation processes.
Yeast is used to convert sugar to alcohol during the primary fermentation in wine making. The secondary fermentation reaction (conversion of malic acid to lactic acid) also uses a bacteria like Lactobacillus as a catalyst to balance the acidity.
Similarly, secret to a great bread involves the use of yeast as a leavening agent and it’s metabolic activity. Yeast feeds on sugars that are present in the flour. The starch molecules from the flour are broken down into simpler sugar molecules when the flour is hydrated. For fermentation to take place, all yeast needs is food, moisture and a warm environment. Yeast dies out during the process of baking as it cannot survive in high temperatures.
A widely used sweetener derived from starch ‘high fructose corn syrup’ is produced with the aid of 𝔞-amylase. HFCS is the principal sweetener in the soft drink industry and it is used in several processed food products. Majority of the enzymes that are used in the food and beverage industry have in fact been cloned.
Chemicals and Detergents
Have you seen the detergent advertisements promising us that their product could remove any stain, from wine to oil to blood to paint?
Well the magic is in the composition of the washing powders. They are made of inorganic and biological components. The word for the biological component in the detergent is “Enzyme”. For many years boiling water and harsh lye soaps were used to clean clothes. However, introduction of enzymes have made it possible to wash clothes at lower temperatures along with lesser consumption of detergents.
Proteases, amylases and lipases are used to break down different sets of molecules that adhere to the surface of the cloth. Proteases help in breaking down the protein stains whereas amylase breaks down starch stains. Lipases are added to the detergent for fat based stains and sometimes enzymes like pectinase and mannase are used to treat fruit and food based stains. Usually one or two of the above-mentioned enzyme is present in detergents.
From antibiotics to vaccines, biotechnology has helped us in maintaining our health. Diabetes, the disease is more than familiar to our ears. It has affected more than 371 million people around the world. They may not have found a cure if it wasn’t for the first human insulin that was initially developed by Genentech and marketed by Eli Lilly in 1982. The older version of Insulin was animal-derived and it was known to have caused allergic reactions. Recombinant human insulin was a step forward to improve the lives of diabetics around the globe. Biological systems are complex and it has taken decades of hard work in laboratories to find medicinal cures for diseases like Hepatitis, Malaria, H1N1 Flu.
More than 230 drugs and vaccines have been developed since 1982. At present, over 400 drug products and vaccines for over 200 diseases are under clinical trials. We may discover a drug to cure Alzheimer’s. Tools and techniques like Spit cancer test for oral cancer, absorbable heart stents, a vaccine to treat Dengue, gene therapies to cure mutated genes that are causing a disease, are just a few instances that have revolutionized lives of many.
Food for thought
We are living in a world where 795 million people out of a total 7.3 billion population are suffering from chronic undernourishment.
Did you know
Haitians eat dirt cookies for survival. They eat cookies made of butter, dirt and salt that has next to negligible nutritional value!!!
Estimates show that 12.9% or 780 million live in developing countries. One of the major challenges before the food and agricultural industry is to develop and implement a sustainable system. The world population will rise to 9.1 billion by 2050. It means we need to increase agricultural productivity by almost 70% to meet the food demand. Therefore, the crops need to be drought-resistant, less fertilizer demanding, and they need to have a higher tolerance towards, virus attacks and insect attacks.
Many day- to-day consumer goods that continue to improve the standard of living around the world are petroleum based. We have depleted about half the world’s fossil reserves that were accumulated over 600 million years. These reserves are non-renewable in nature. Processing, refining and burning of fossil fuels have led to higher emissions of greenhouse gases and global warming.
Major companies like Coca-cola, Heinz Ketchup have announced partnerships with biotech companies to produce next-gen PlantBottles. Currently, PlantBottle aims to replace upto 30% of the PET in bottles with materials derived from plants. Eventually, by 2020, Coca-Cola plans to replace the entire plastic bottles line up with PlantBottles.
Goodyear Tire in 2008 announced it’s research collaboration project with Genencor to develop BioIsoprene. The technology would produce high-quality synthetic rubber from renewable resources that would replace approximately seven gallons of crude oil required to produce one passenger tire.
Biotechnology and its various branches have enabled the use of renewable resources for building products. The consumers are now actively seeking for products with natural or renewable ingredients or products that further don’t degrade the environment. Development of Biofuels, bioplastics, safe and healthier foods, biopharmaceuticals are some great examples to form a basis of what’s yet to come in the future for us.
Various countries in Europe depend on heat and power from gas combustion in Biorefineries. These Biorefineries are capable of producing high enough energy and heat to cover it’s own load and also export to the grid to supply households with electricity and heat.
It’s time we put efforts in distinguishing the real risks and the perceived risks to reap benefits from Biotechnology. It has given us an opportunity to meet our endless demands in a sustainable way. We need to step aside from the fear mongering of building a real life Frankenstein and give this field it’s due credibility. The scope of Biotechnology is rather well defined beyond than just “Crops and Cloning”.