How safe is biotechnology?
Research options are plenty but concerns remain over ethical issues
This time of the year, every avid student who has completed PUC will be looking for an option for further studies. Is it engineering or medicine, the worn out path, or are there other good courses to pursue? Remember that the country is now lacking in human resource for research in science, and without this important component, there will be no development. We will be dependent on foreign innovations, for which we have to pay heavily. As a student, if you are the one dreaming to be the future scientist, instead of the mundane computer programming, medicine or architecture, choose a science combination in B.Sc. with Biotechnology as one of the options.
Biotechnology is defined as ‘the application of biological methods or processes, to produce products useful to mankind.’ It often involves making molecular changes in living beings for their better utilisation. Plant breeders and fermentation experts have for centuries laboured to improve crops and micro-organisms such as bacteria and yeasts for better production of food, alcohol and medicine.
Modern biotechnology or genetic engineering, also called recombinant DNA technology, makes possible the transfer of genes (DNA) from one organism to another, thus allowing the recipient organism to express some characteristics associated only with the donor. The new characteristics that the recipient gains will never come through natural processes of fertilization. Thus the scope for genetic engineering is far greater than conventional breeding employed prior to our proper understanding of DNA.
The recombinant DNA technology has the potential to revolutionise medical, agriculture, food and chemical industries, and change the lives of people. The biotechnology industry is now the fastest growing sector. There are more than 2,000 major biotechnology companies in the U.S., 700 in Europe, and a further 1,000 in India and other countries, the majority of which are concerned with the production of pharmaceuticals and enzymes used in food and leather industries.
The expansion in the cultivation of GM (genetically modified) crops has been very rapid in recent years. In 1998, some 29 million hectares of GM crops were cultivated in the U.S., Australia, Argentina, Canada and Mexico. In 1999, in China, one million farmers planted Bt-cotton, a pest resistant GM cotton plant. In the present century, 71 per cent of the world’s commercial GM crops are herbicide-tolerant, 28 per cent are Bt crops, and one per cent others, including virus-resistant crops.
Production of human therapeutics from transgenic bacteria and yeasts is another fertile area of biotechnology. Some important products of genetically engineered microbes are: streptokinase, tissue plasminogen activator (blood clot dissolvers), insulin (hormone for diabetes), human growth hormone (to treat growth retardation), monoclonal antibodies (for treatment of immunological disorders), and interferons (against virus infections).
One of the recent developments is the emergence of Nanotechnology which has great potential in the medical field, especially in drug delivery to specific tissues in the human body, and in the treatment of cancer and liver disorders.
Biosensor technology is also an emerging field with great scope. This is an area where an expert in physics joins a biologist to develop bioelectronic devices. Biosensors are analytical tools made to convert a biochemical signal into quantifiable electrical signal. They have tremendous applications in the field of diagnostics.
Bioinformatics is the synthesis of information technology and biotechnology. There are several universities offering courses in Nanotechnology and Bioinformatics at the PG level. Associated with both medical and agricultural applications, however, are growing concerns over the safety of the new technology.
The technology has given man tremendous powers to alter nature, and this has given rise to two concerns regarding biosafety, and bioethics. Much of the projected hazards are often exaggerated. Scientists should be made responsible to release safe technologies only. Keeping in view the major concerns perceived by environmentalists and scientists themselves, ‘biosafety measures’ have been prescribed by the Government through the Department of Science & Technology & Department of Biotechnology. There are precautions to be taken in handling the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the laboratory, and in their release to the environment. There are special biosafety protocols for biomedical laboratories.
To educate people on the biosafety and ethical issues involved in biotechnology, the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness & Education (FBAE), has been established which, through its website ( www.fbae.org), and through seminars and workshops, disseminates information. There are articles on biotechnology posted in the website and students can visit the website for all information regarding the novel technology. They can also e-mail the members if they have any doubts.
(The author is Emeritus Professor & former Head, Department of Microbiology & Biotechnology, Bangalore University)
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