The term biotechnology refers to any process that involves biology and technology. Though the term was coined as far back as 1919 by Karl Ereky (Verma et al., 2011), biotechnology was established as a field of applied science only in the late twentieth century with the advent of recombinant DNA technology. Recombinant DNA technology is the generation and application of recombinant DNA molecules or rDNA. In a nutshell, recombinant DNA technology involved the cutting of a fragment of DNA and its insertion into a specific circular DNA molecule called a vector. The DNA is cut by enzymes called restriction endonucleases, and joined to a vector molecule by ligases. The fragment of DNA inserted into a vector is known as a chimera or an rDNA molecule. This molecule is transformed into a host cell where it replicates, producing many copies of the inserted fragment. This process is also known as gene cloning (Brown, 2001).
Recombinant DNA technology manipulates genes to produce proteins that they code for, for human use. This technology has contributed to different fields including medicine and agriculture. DNA technology has made possible the mass production of human insulin. Human insulin protein has two chains, A chain and B chain. The production of insulin involves the generation of two chimeric plasmid vectors, one containing the A chain and the other containing the B chain. The peptides are cloned into a bacterial plasmid fused with the bacterial protein beta-galatosidase. The fused vector is transformed into the bacterium Escherichia coli. Inside E. coli, the bacterial lac promoter expresses the fusion protein. Treatment with the chemical cyanogens bromide separates the insulin chain from the bacterial beta-galactosidase. After production, both the chains are joined together in the laboratory by air oxidation. The bacterium E. coli has the unique ability to produce multiple copies of plasmid vectors in its system. This enables the mass production of the insulin protein. Apart from insulin, biotechnology has enabled the mass production of various other human factors like interferons, and hormones like somatotrophin and somatostatin (Brown, 2001, Riggs, 1981).
Agriculture is another field that has benefited from recombinant DNA technology. Apart from the widely known Bt (Bacillus thuriengiensis) technology, there are other aspects of biotechnology that has been applied in agriculture. Antisense technology is a potential application that is used in inducing resistance in plants. Antisense RNA is an RNA molecule that binds to target genes and induce their degradation by a specific pathway inside the cell. This process is also known as RNA silencing. Commercially this technology has been used to produce virus resistant plants. The technology involves the generation of a fragment of RNA that is complementary to the RNA molecule that codes for the viral proteins. This molecule is then cloned into a vector and introduced into the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens. This bacterium has the ability to deliver plasmid molecules containing recombinant DNA molecules, into plant cells. Inside the plant cell, the RNA gets transcribed under a plant-specific promoter. Commercially, RNA silencing has been used to generate transgenic varieties of papaya that are resistant to Papaya ringspot virus and squash resistant to different viruses that infect the plant (Fuchs and Gonsalves, 2007).
Insulin and transgenic plants are some examples of the application of biotechnology. However, the technology is not limited to medicine and agriculture. Millions of dollars are spent every year on research in biotechnology both in commercial establishments and academic settings. Thus, novel technologies are emerging every day. As with any technology, biotechnology also has safety concerns. Every new technology must be tested and researched on properly before being commercialized. With the possibilities that are open for a scientist armed with restriction enzymes and ligases, it is not dinosaurs and modified sharks that we need to be worried about, but problems like drug resistant bacteria. That being said, biotechnology is undoubtedly the most promising technology for future.
Brown, T.A. (2001). Gene Cloning and DNA Analysis, An Introduction. Oxford. Blackwell Publishing Company.
Fuchs, M., and Gonsalves, D. (2007). Safety of virus-resistant transgenic plants two decades after their introduction: lessons from realistic field risk assessment studies. Annual Review of Phytopathology. 45, 173-202.
Riggs, A.D. (1981). Bacterial production of human insulin. Diabetes Care. 4(1), 64-68.
Verma, A.S., Agrahari, S., Rastogi, S., and Singh, A. (2011). Biotechnology in the realm of history. Journal of Pharmacy and BioAllied Sciences. 3(3), 321–323.