Improve yield from crops
Using the techniques of modern biotechnology, one or two genes may be transferred to a highly developed crop variety to impart a new character that would increase its yield. However, while increases in crop yield are the most obvious applications of modern biotechnology in agriculture, it is also the most difficult one. Current genetic engineering techniques work best for effects that are controlled by a single gene. Many of the genetic characteristics associated with yield (e.g., enhanced growth) are controlled by a large number of genes, each of which has a minimal effect on the overall yield. There is, therefore, much scientific work to be done in this area.
Reduced vulnerability of crops to environmental stresses
Crops containing genes that will enable them to withstand biotic and abiotic stresses may be developed. For example, drought and excessively salty soil are two important limiting factors in crop productivity. Biotechnologists are studying plants that can cope with these extreme conditions in the hope of finding the genes that enable them to do so and eventually transferring these genes to the more desirable crops. One of the latest developments is the identification of a plant gene, At-DBF2, from thale cress, a tiny weed that is often used for plant research because it is very easy to grow and its genetic code is well mapped out. When this gene was inserted into tomato and tobacco cells (see RNA interference), the cells were able to withstand environmental stresses like salt, drought, cold and heat, far more than ordinary cells. If these preliminary results prove successful in larger trials, then At-DBF2 genes can help in engineering crops that can better withstand harsh environments. Researchers have also created transgenic rice plants that are resistant to rice yellow mottle virus (RYMV). In Africa, this virus destroys majority of the rice crops and makes the surviving plants more susceptible to fungal infections.
Increased nutritional qualities &quantity of food crops
Proteins in foods may be modified to increase their nutritional qualities. Proteins in legumes and cereals may be transformed to provide the amino acids needed by human beings for a balanced diet. A good example is the work of Professors Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer on the so-called Golden rice (discussed below).
Improved taste, texture or appearance of food
Modern biotechnology can be used to slow down the process of spoilage so that fruit can ripen longer on the plant and then be transported to the consumer with a still reasonable shelf life. This improves the taste, texture and appearance of the fruit. More importantly, it could expand the market for farmers in developing countries due to the reduction in spoilage.
The first genetically modified food product was a tomato which was transformed to delay its ripening. Researchers in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam are currently working on delayed-ripening papaya in collaboration with the University of Nottingham and Zeneca.
Biotechnology in cheese production: enzymes produced by micro-organisms provide an alternative to animal rennet – a cheese coagulant - and an alternative supply for cheese makers. This also eliminates possible public concerns with animal-derived material, although there is currently no plans to develop synthetic milk, thus making this argument less compelling. Enzymes offer an animal-friendly alternative to animal rennet. While providing comparable quality, they are theoretically also less expensive.
About 85 million tons of wheat flour is used every year to bake bread. By adding an enzyme called maltogenic amylase to the flour, bread stays fresher longer. Assuming that 10-15% of bread is thrown away, if it could just stay fresh another 5–7 days then 2 million tons of flour per year would be saved. That corresponds to 40% of the bread consumed in a country such as the USA. This means more bread becomes available with no increase in input. In combination with other enzymes, bread can also be made bigger, more appetizing and better in a range of ways.
Reduced dependence on fertilizers, pesticides and other agrochemicals
Most of the current commercial applications of modern biotechnology in agriculture are on reducing the dependence of farmers on agrochemicals. For example, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil bacterium that produces a protein with insecticidal qualities. Traditionally, a fermentation process has been used to produce an insecticidal spray from these bacteria. In this form, the Bt toxin occurs as an inactive protoxin, which requires digestion by an insect to be effective. There are several Bt toxins and each one is specific to certain target insects. Crop plants have now been engineered to contain and express the genes for Bt toxin, which they produce in its active form. When a susceptible insect ingests the transgenic crop cultivar expressing the Bt protein, it stops feeding and soon thereafter dies as a result of the Bt toxin binding to its gut wall. Bt corn is now commercially available in a number of countries to control corn borer (a lepidopteran insect), which is otherwise controlled by spraying (a more difficult process).
Crops have also been genetically engineered to acquire tolerance to broad-spectrum herbicide. The lack of cost-effective herbicides with broad-spectrum activity and no crop injury was a consistent limitation in crop weed management. Multiple applications of numerous herbicides were routinely used to control a wide range of weed species detrimental to agronomic crops. Weed management tended to rely on preemergence — that is, herbicide applications were sprayed in response to expected weed infestations rather than in response to actual weeds present. Mechanical cultivation and hand weeding were often necessary to control weeds not controlled by herbicide applications. The introduction of herbicide tolerant crops has the potential of reducing the number of herbicide active ingredients used for weed management, reducing the number of herbicide applications made during a season, and increasing yield due to improved weed management and less crop injury. Transgenic crops that express tolerance to glyphosate, glufosinate and bromoxynil have been developed. These herbicides can now be sprayed on transgenic crops without inflicting damage on the crops while killing nearby weeds.
From 1996 to 2001, herbicide tolerance was the most dominant trait introduced to commercially available transgenic crops, followed by insect resistance. In 2001, herbicide tolerance deployed in soybean, corn and cotton accounted for 77% of the 626,000 square kilometres planted to transgenic crops; Bt crops accounted for 15%; and "stacked genes" for herbicide tolerance and insect resistance used in both cotton and corn accounted for 8%.
Production of novel substances in crop plants
Biotechnology is being applied for novel uses other than food. For example, oilseed can be modified to produce fatty acids for detergents, substitute fuels and petrochemicals. Potatoes, tomatos, rice, tobacco, lettuce, safflowers, and other plants have been genetically-engineered to produce insulin and certain vaccines. If future clinical trials prove successful, the advantages of edible vaccines would be enormous, especially for developing countries. The transgenic plants may be grown locally and cheaply. Homegrown vaccines would also avoid logistical and economic problems posed by having to transport traditional preparations over long distances and keeping them cold while in transit. And since they are edible, they will not need syringes, which are not only an additional expense in the traditional vaccine preparations but also a source of infections if contaminated. In the case of insulin grown in transgenic plants, it is well-established that the gastrointestinal system breaks the protein down therefore this could not currently be administered as an edible protein. However, it might be produced at significantly lower cost than insulin produced in costly, bioreactors. For example, Calgary, Canada-based SemBioSys Genetics, Inc. reports that its safflower-produced insulin will reduce unit costs by over 25% or more and reduce the capital costs associated with building a commercial-scale insulin manufacturing facility by approximately over $100 million compared to traditional biomanufacturing facilities.
There is another side to the agricultural biotechnology issue however. It includes increased herbicide usage and resultant herbicide resistance, "super weeds," residues on and in food crops, genetic contamination of non-GM crops which hurt organic and conventional farmers, damage to wildlife from glyphosate, etc.
Biotechnological engineering or biological engineering is a branch of engineering that focuses on biotechnologies and biological science. It includes different disciplines such as biochemical engineering, biomedical engineering, bio-process engineering, biosystem engineering and so on. Because of the novelty of the field, the definition of a bioengineer is still undefined. However, in general it is an integrated approach of fundamental biological sciences and traditional engineering principles.
Bioengineers are often employed to scale up bio processes from the laboratory scale to the manufacturing scale. Moreover, as with most engineers, they often deal with management, economic and legal issues. Since patents and regulation (e.g. FDA regulation in the U.S.) are very important issues for biotech enterprises, bioengineers are often required to have knowledge related to these issues.
The increasing number of biotech enterprises is likely to create a need for bioengineers in the years to come. Many universities throughout the world are now providing programs in bioengineering and biotechnology (as independent programs or specialty programs within more established engineering fields).
Bioremediation and Biodegradation
Biotechnology is being used to engineer and adapt organisms especially microorganisms in an effort to find sustainable ways to clean up contaminated environments. The elimination of a wide range of pollutants and wastes from the environment is an absolute requirement to promote a sustainable development of our society with low environmental impact. Biological processes play a major role in the removal of contaminants and biotechnology is taking advantage of the astonishing catabolic versatility of microorganisms to degrade/convert such compounds. New methodological breakthroughs in sequencing, genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics and imaging are producing vast amounts of information. In the field of Environmental Microbiology, genome-based global studies open a new era providing unprecedented in silico views of metabolic and regulatory networks, as well as clues to the evolution of degradation pathways and to the molecular adaptation strategies to changing environmental conditions. Functional genomic and metagenomic approaches are increasing our understanding of the relative importance of different pathways and regulatory networks to carbon flux in particular environments and for particular compounds and they will certainly accelerate the development of bioremediation technologies and biotransformation processes.
Marine environments are especially vulnerable since oil spills of coastal regions and the open sea are poorly containable and mitigation is difficult. In addition to pollution through human activities, millions of tons of petroleum enter the marine environment every year from natural seepages. Despite its toxicity, a considerable fraction of petroleum oil entering marine systems is eliminated by the hydrocarbon-degrading activities of microbial communities, in particular by a remarkable recently discovered group of specialists, the so-called hydrocarbonoclastic bacteria (HCB).
Notable researchers and individuals
* Canada : Frederick Banting, Lap-Chee Tsui, Tak Wah Mak, Lorne Babiuk
* Europe : Francis Crick, Jacques Monod, Paul Nurse, Ingo Potrykus, Ralf_Reski
* Finland : Leena Palotie
* Iceland : Kari Stefansson
* India : Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw (Biocon), Dr. Lalji Singh (CCMB, Hyderabad)
* Ireland : Timothy O'Brien, Dermot P Kelleher
* Mexico : Francisco Bolívar Zapata, Luis Herrera-Estrella
* U.S. : Roger Beachy, David Botstein, Herbert Boyer, Sydney Brenner, James J. Collins, Leroy Hood, Eric Lander, Robert Langer, Thomas Okarma, Craig Venter, James D. Watson, Michael West.