If you have had a can of soft drink, ate a fruit, or took some head ache medicine this morning – then it’s very likely you have used a genetically enhanced product. Genetics is a part of biotechnology that manipulates biological organisms to make products that benefit humankind. Biotechnology is essential in our life, but there are some concerns regarding its safety. Although, biotechnology may pose some danger it is proving to be very beneficial to humankind.
The first applications of biotechnology occurred approximately around 5000 BC.
Back then people used simple breeding methods. Chains of plants or animals were crossed to produce greater genetic variety. The hybridized offspring then were selectively bred to produce the desired traits. For example, for about 7000 years, corn has been selectively bred for increased kernel size and additional nutrition value. Also, through selective breeding, cattle and pigs have become the major sources of animal foods for human (Encarta 99).
The modern era of biotechnology started in 1953 when British biophysicist Francis Crick and American biochemist James Watson presented their double-stranded model of DNA.
DNA is an extensive, chain-like structure made up of nucleotides, and in a way it looks like a twisted rope ladder (Drlica 27). In 1960 Swiss microbiologist Werner Arber had discovered restriction enzymes. This special kind of enzymes can cut DNA of an organism at precise points. In 1973 American scientists Stanley Cohen and
Herbert Boyer removed a specific gene from one bacterium and inserted it into another using restriction enzymes. This achievement served as foundation to recombinant DNA technology, which is commonly called genetic engineering. Recombinant DNA technology is a transfer of a specifically coded gene of one organism into bacteria.
Further, the host bacteria serve as a biologic factory by reproducing the transferred gene. Today biotechnology’s applications are used in a variety of areas. It’s used in waste management for creation of biodegradable materials, in agriculture for higher yields and quality, in medicine for production of advanced pharmaceuticals, cloning tissues and curing genetic diseases. However there is a down side to genetic engineering. It deals with dangerous bacteria which could escape the boundaries of a lab and possibly cause epidemics. Moreover, if a transgenic organism escapes, it could eliminate a range of species and thus disrupt natural balance.
Since biotechnology is a necessity, some government guidelines were established for strict regulation of recombinant DNA experiments (Encarta 99).
Agriculture is the largest business in the world, with assets of approximately $900 billion and about 15 million employees. Back in the 80’s, there was a concern, based on population growth rates, that by the turn of the century traditional agriculture would be in a serious trouble (Hanson 68). But due to the revolutionary development of biotechnology during last couple of decades agriculture has drastically advanced. Sensational achievements were made in both plant cultivation and animal husbandry.
The modification of plants has become one of the most important aspects in agriculture.
Increased crop yields can be achieved through the increase of land, or increased yield per tract. Land is expensive and should be used efficiently, to do so – large quantities of fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides and frequent irrigation may be necessary. Due to the increase in petroleum cost – prices for nitrogen fertilizers continuously rise. Herbicides and pesticides are considered to be hazardous and very costly materials. Moreover, recurrent irrigation gradually leads to serious damage of the soil due to the salt accumulation. Eventually, increased amounts of salt in the soil result in large losses of crops (Hanson 69).
Biotechnology can incorporate genes that are resistant to environmental stress, viruses, and insects. Such modified plants will be resistant to the same factors as the incorporated gene.
Crop plants could be genetically engineered to manufacture functional insecticides so that they are immanently tolerant to insects. No hazardous and costly pesticides are needed for such plants resulting in very low crop maintenance costs. Moreover, biological insecticides are highly specific for a range of insects and considered to be harmless to humans and other higher animals (Glick and Pasternak 341).
Plant viruses very often attack crops and cause significant damage and loss of crops.
Recombinant DNA technology offers a few ways to obtain natural virus resistance: .