Biotechnology is the use of any technique involving living organisms to manufacture or change products, to improve the desired characteristics of a plant or animal, or to alter microorganisms for a purpose.
Biotechnology has a long history. For example, yeast microorganisms were harnessed to prepare wine by Egyptians some 4,000 years before the birth of Christ. In 1865, Gregor Mendel presented his laws of heredity, which he deduced by the careful observation of the results of breeding different types of pea plants. Although he did not realize it at the time, Mendel was observing the results of the exchange and altered expression of genetic material.
The modern day conception of biotechnology, with the deliberate experimental manipulation of genetic material, had its roots in the mid years of the twentieth century. In 1940, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) was isolated by Oswald Avery. Thirteen years later, James Watson and Francis Crick described the double helix structure of DNA, a feat that earned them a Nobel Prize just a few years later. The modern age of biotechnology began in 1973, when Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer devised recombinant DNA technology; the deliberate introduction of DNA from one species into another. Their work made possible feats such as the production of human insulin by the bacterium Escherichia coli. This genetically engineered human insulin was, in fact, the first genetically engineered product approved for sale in the United States in 1982.
The latter decades of the twentieth century saw an explosion in the experimental and commercial use of biotechnology.
The basic concept of biotechnology involves recombination, or the process where genetic material from just about any living organism can be isolated, cut up into pieces using special enzymes, and the pieces encouraged to recombine. The recombination can be between genetic material from the same organism, or between genetic material from different organisms. Differences between the organization of the genetic material of organisms like bacteria and "higher" organisms such as humans, and the difference in how the genetic traits coded for by the material are expressed, has complicated the advances in biotechnology. But, increasingly, such species differences are being understood.
Applications of biotechnology are numerous. For example, foods are being genetically altered to engineer in more nutritional compounds. The nutraceutical industry is growing to become a potent economic force, generating billions of dollars in sales each year in the United States alone. Genetic manipulation can also help preserve foods longer, allowing a fresher product to reach the supermarket shelves.
An aspect of biotechnology that has garnered much attention since the 1990s is cloning. Until 1997, a fully developed organism could not be cloned. But, in early 1997, the first success at producing live animals by embryo cloning occurred in Edinburgh, Scotland. The procedure that produced Dolly the sheep was reported in the March 6, 1997 edition of Nature.
While embryo cloning is still a "hit or miss" procedure, the consensus among researchers involved in embryo cloning is that cloning animal embryos will be perfected. The resulting ease of genetic tailoring could produce higher yielding and disease-resistant livestock.
Cloning embryos is similar to what happens naturally when identical twins are created in the womb. All human embryos begin as a single cell. Normally, millions of rounds of division and the formation of cells that differ in structure and function from other cells gives rise to a human. With identical twins, as the cell divides it separates into two separate, individual cells. The two separate, individual cells then divide and differentiate independently. The result is two embryos that are identical in the composition of their genetic material.
In embryo cloning, a cell is mechanically encouraged to divide into two separate, individual cells. These grow and develop separately, creating identical twins.There is continuing debate around the moral and ethical limits on cloning human embryos. Currently, it is illegal to use federal research funds in the United States to clone human embryos.In November of 2001, the human cloning debate was raised from a theoretical discussion to a concrete discussion. Then, a company in suburban Boston announced that a human cell had been cloned to provide stem cells for research. While the experiment was carried on for only a few cell divisions, the technology required to develop a cloned human being may be almost in place.
The prospects offered by biotechnology have not been greeted with unanimous enthusiasm by everyone. Many scientists and laypersons assert that the hope of curing or avoiding genetic disorders through biotechnology is a positive advance. Some hold that the genetically derived nutritional enhancement of foods, such as the nutritional supplementation of rice grown in developing countries, is a worthy aim. Others oppose all forms of genetic engineering, or warn of the dangers of having such technology as the commercial property of a few large companies. There are also concerns about genetic privacy, the effects of transgenic organisms on other organisms and the environment, and animal rights.
As the technology available for genetic engineering continues to improve, debates over the use of these techniques in practical settings are almost certainly going to continue and escalate in the future.
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Wilmut, I., K. Campbell, and C. Tudge. The Second Creation: Dolly and the Age of Biological Control. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
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