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What is biotechnology?

Biotechnology – from the Greek βίος (bíos, “life”), τέχνη (tékhne, “craft”) and -λογία (-logía, “discourse, study, science”) – is an interdisciplinary branch of knowledge that links biology, physics, chemistry and biomedicine. Biotechnology consists of using biological systems, living beings or part of them to create or modify products or processes in order to obtain an item or service that is useful for humans.

Biotechnology has an impact on pharmacology, medicine, bromatology, industry, livestock, agriculture and the treatment of solid, liquid and gaseous waste.

What are the origins of biotechnology?

Biotechnology goes back thousands of years to a time when, even without understanding the processes, humans began to apply fermentation to obtain products such as wine from grape juice, cheese and yogurt from milk, and beer from hops and barley. This was a traditional form of biotechnology that used the metabolic processes of certain microorganisms. Scientific development allowed us to understand how and why they occurred, and we began to investigate how results could be optimized and new applications found.

Hungarian engineer Károly Ereky is considered to be the father of biotechnology. He introduced the term in his book Biotechnology of Meat, Fat and Milk Production in an Agricultural Large-Scale Farm, in 1919

What are the main applications of biotechnology? 

The applications of biotechnology include the following:

  • Medicine: It is used to prevent, treat or cure pathologies through the production of pharmaceuticals, carrying out diagnostic tests, etc. The products developed thanks to biotechnology include vaccines, immunotherapies and antibiotics. In terms of treatment, biotechnology makes it possible, for example, to use immunohistochemistry and the genetic analysis of the proteins or nucleic acids in tumors for the detection, classification and early treatment of malignant cells.
  • Agriculture: It is used to improve crops and plants, improving their characteristics, resistance and adaptability, and enhancing their nutritional value. It also contributes to sustainable agriculture by reducing or eliminating the need for toxic pesticides or herbicides.
  • Industry: It contributes to the creation of more environmentally-friendly industrial processes, reducing the use of energy from non-renewable sources and the production of waste. For example, the production of biodegradable plastics, the use of enzymes as catalysts or enzyme inhibitors to destroy hazardous chemical pollutants, etc.
  • Energy: It is used for the production of biogas fuel.
  • Environment: It is used to help maintain biodiversity, preserve species and eliminate pollutants and heavy metals in nature, using plants and microorganisms. For example, it helps to deal with the hydrocarbons entering the marine environment and counteract their toxic effects thanks to microbial communities that contain encoded genes in their genome to break down alkanes.

What are the main disadvantages of biotechnology?

The advantages of biotechnology are obvious if we look at its applications. However, like all activities, biotechnology also has disadvantages and potential risks.

Biotechnology involves some environmental risks that can negatively impact the balance of ecosystems and biodiversity. such as:

  • Crossover pollination can spread characteristics such as resistance to herbicides, and contribute to the development of more aggressive weeds.
  • The genetic modification introduced by insecticide toxins in agricultural crops can help to develop resistance in pest populations, and they can also put birds, butterflies and bees at risk. 
  • Strengthening crop species through genetic manipulation could lead to the disappearance of varieties of the species and make natural reproduction impossible.

From a social and economic point of view, biotechnology promotes sustainable cultivation and the production of sufficient food for the human population, but access to it continues to involve an investment that not all farmers can afford. This could increase the economic gap between small and large farmers, and the gaps between different regions of the world.

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