Genes, Technology and Policy/The Science

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The Science

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What is biotechnology?

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In its broadest sense, “biotechnology” refers to “any technique that uses living organisms, or parts of such organisms, to make or modify products, to improve plants or animals, or to develop microorganisms for specific use.” [1]

Biotechnology combines disciplines like genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry, embryology and cell biology, which are in turn linked to practical disciplines like chemical engineering, information technology, and robotics.

Figure 1 shows how biotechnology has evolved through the years. On one end of the development pole are techniques of traditional biotechnology like microbial fermentation, used as early as 10,000 years ago in fermenting beer, wine and dairy products. At the other end of the development pole are the continuously evolving techniques of modern biotechnology, such as genetic engineering. Using genetic engineering techniques, the genetic makeup of an organism may be modified by inactivating or altering some of its genes and introducing other natural or artificial genes, usually from another organism.

Figure 1: The Gradient of Biotechnology

Recently, the term “biotechnology” has come to be identified with modern biotechnology, specifically the use of genetic engineering techniques in medicine and agriculture. Hence, unless the context requires otherwise, this primer uses “biotechnology” to mean “modern biotechnology”.

What definition of biotechnology is widely accepted not only by scientists but also by governments and multilateral institutions?

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The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety defines modern biotechnology as referring to any process that involves the application of (i) in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid and direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles, or (ii) fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family, that overcome natural physiological reproductive or recombination of barriers and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection. [2]

Although the Protocol is not yet in force (because less than the required 50 States have either ratified or acceded to it), the Protocol’s definition of modern biotechnology has gained currency in international circles.

However, while there may be an emerging international consensus on the above definition, strictly speaking it is a definition that is applicable only when one uses the term “modern biotechnology” for purposes of interpreting or implementing the Protocol.

What technical terms should a policy maker know to understand biotechnology?

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There are at least four such technical terms: genetics, genes, genome and genetically modified organisms.

Genetics is the branch of biology that deals with the principles of heredity and variation in all living things. It is the study of why and how parents pass on some of their distinguishing features to their offspring. Its focus is on genes and their functions.

The gene is the basic unit of heredity and the ultimate arbiter of what we are. It carries instructions that allow cells to produce specific proteins. (It should be noted, however, that only certain genes are active at any given moment and environment. [3] )

A gene is a part of the deoxyribonucleic acid (“DNA”) molecule. [4] DNA, which is present in all living cells, contains information coding for cellular structure, organization and function. [5] It is made up of two strands twisted around each other in a helical staircase. [6]

Figure 2: DNA, Genes and Proteins

Each cell in an organism has one or two sets of the basic DNA complement, called a genome. The genome is itself made up of one or more extremely long linear array of molecules of DNA that are called chromosomes. Genes, as explained earlier, are the functional regions of the DNA. They are the active segments of the chromosomes.7 Figure 3 shows how the genome, chromosomes, DNA and genes relate to each other:

Figure 3: Successive Enlargements of an Organism with Focus on Genetic Material

In modern biotechnology8, the genome of an organism is altered by exposing cells to fragments of “foreign” DNA carrying the desirable genes, often from another species. This DNA is taken in and inserts itself into one or more of the recipient’s chromosomes at a location where it is inherited like any other part of the genome. The cells so modified are called transgenic cells. It is from transgenic cells that a GMO can be produced. All of the GMO’s cells contain the additional foreign DNA.9

There is no universal definition for genetically modified organism (also called “transgenic organism” or “living modified organism”). However, it is generally understood to be a plant, animal or microorganism that contains genes that have been altered or transferred from another species or from the same species by means of genetic engineering techniques.

What role does information technology play in the development of modern biotechnology?

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Our knowledge of biology has grown in such a way that we need powerful tools to organize that knowledge. Information technology, through the field of bioinformatics [10] , makes possible the rapid organization and analysis of biological data. Bioinformatics merges biology, computer science, and information technology to manage and analyze genomic data, with the ultimate goal of understanding and modeling living systems. [11]

Box1. How to Genetically Engineer a Plant. The process of genetic engineering in plants requires the successful completion of a series of five steps.

Figure 4

Why do we have to familiarize ourselves with the science of an issues surrounding modern biotechnology?

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There are at least two reasons. The first has to do with the potential benefits that modern biotechnology offers humankind. The European Commission (2002) [12] refers to modern biotechnology as the “next wave of the knowledge-based economy” after information technology, and the “most promising of the frontier technologies.” [13] It has identified applications in the following areas:

1. Health care. Biotechnology can be used to arrive at novel and innovative approaches to meet the needs of ageing populations and poor countries.

2. Crop production. Biotechnology can deliver improved food quality and environmental benefits through agronomically improved crops. It may be used to produce foods with enhanced qualities like higher nutritional benefits.

3. Non-food uses of crops. Biotechnology can also improve non-food uses of crops as sources of industrial feedstock or new materials such as biodegradable plastics. For example, canola is now being used to produce high-value industrial oil. Under the appropriate economic and fiscal conditions, biomass can contribute to alternative energy with both liquid and solid biofuels (e.g., biodiesel and bioethanol) and processes such as bio-desulphurisation. [14]

4. Environmental uses. New ways of protecting and improving the environment are possible with biotechnology, including bioremediation of polluted air, soil, water and waste, as well as the development of cleaner industrial products and processes like biocatalysis. [15]

The second reason why knowledge of biotechnology is important is that with more biotechnology-derived products being placed on the market, chances are these products will find their way into most countries, even those that do not use biotechnology for production. A government needs to be familiar with modern biotechnology if it is to effectively regulate biotechnological products and ensure that any adverse effects, if any, on the environment, human health, and social structures are properly managed, if not avoided