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BIOTECHNOLOGY AND ITS APPLICATIONS
Biotechnology, as you would have learnt from the previous chapter, essentially deals with industrial scale production of biopharmaceuticals and biologicals using genetically modified microbes, fungi, plants and animals. The applications of biotechnology include therapeutics, diagnostics, genetically modified crops for agriculture, processed food, bioremediation, waste treatment, and energy production. Three critical research areas of biotechnology are:
(i) Providing the best catalyst in the form of improved organism usually a microbe or pure enzyme.
(ii) Creating optimal conditions through engineering for a catalyst to act, and
(iii) Downstream processing technologies to purify the protein/organic compound.
Let us now learn how human beings have used biotechnology to improve the quality of human life, especially in the field of food production and health.
12.1 BIOTECHNOLOGICAL APPLICATIONS IN AGRICULTURE
Let us take a look at the three options that can be thought for increasing food production
(i) agro-chemical based agriculture;
(ii) organic agriculture; an
(iii) genetically engineered crop-based agriculture.
The Green Revolution succeeded in tripling the food supply but yet it was not enough to feed the growing human population. Increased yields have partly been due to the use of improved crop varieties, but mainly due to the use of better management practices and use of agrochemicals (fertilisers and pesticides). However, for farmers in the developing world, agrochemicals are often too expensive, and further increases in yield with existing varieties are not possible using conventional breeding. Is there any alternative path that our understanding of genetics can show so thatfarmers may obtain maximum yield from their fields? Is there a way to minimise the use of fertilisers and chemicals so that their harmful effects on the environment are reduced? Use of genetically modified crops is a possible solution.
Plants, bacteria, fungi and animals whose genes have been altered by manipulation are called Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). GM plants have been useful in many ways. Genetic modification has:
(i) made crops more tolerant to abiotic stresses (cold, drought, salt, heat).
(ii) reduced reliance on chemical pesticides (pest-resistant crops).
(iii) helped to reduce post harvest losses.
(iv) increased efficiency of mineral usage by plants (this prevents early exhaustion of fertility of soil).
(v) enhanced nutritional value of food, e.g., Vitamin ‘A’ enriched rice.
In addition to these uses, GM has been used to create tailor-made plants to supply alternative resources to industries, in the form of starches, fuels and pharmaceuticals. Some of the applications of biotechnology in agriculture that you will study in detail are the production of pest resistant plants, which could decrease the amount of pesticide used. Bt toxin is produced by a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt for short). Bt toxin gene has been cloned from the bacteria and been expressed in plants to provide resistance to insects without the need for insecticides; in effect created a bio-pesticide. Examples are Bt cotton, Bt corn, rice, tomato, potato and soyabean etc.
Bt Cotton: Some strains of Bacillus thuringiensis produce proteins that kill certain insects such as lepidopterans (tobacco budworm, armyworm), coleopterans (beetles) and dipterans (flies, mosquitoes). B. thuringiensis forms protein crystals during a particular phase of their growth. These crystals contain a toxic insecticidal protein. Why does this toxin not kill the Bacillus? Actually, the Bt toxin protein exist as inactive protoxins but once an insect ingest the inactive toxin, it is converted into an active form of toxin due to the alkaline pH of the gut which solubilise the crystals. The activated toxin binds to the surface of midgut epithelial cells and create pores that cause cell swelling and lysis and eventually cause death of the insect.
Biotechnology has given to humans several useful products by using microbes, plant, animals and their metabolic machinery. Recombinant DNA technology has made it possible to engineer microbes, plants and animals such that they have novel capabilities. GeneticallyModified Organisms have been created by using methods other than natural methods to transfer one or more genes from one organism to another, generally using techniques such as recombinant DNA technology.
GM plants have been useful in increasing crop yields, reduce postharvest losses and make crops more tolerant of stresses. There are several GM crop plants with improved nutritional value of foods and reduced the reliance on chemical pesticides (pest-resistant crops). Recombinant DNA technological processes have made immense impact in the area of healthcare by enabling mass production of safe and more effective therapeutics.
Since the recombinant therapeutics are identical to human proteins, they do not induce unwanted immunological responses and are free from risk of infection as was observed in case of similar products isolated from non-human sources. Human insulin is made in bacteria yet its structure is absolutely identical to that of the natural molecule. Transgenic animals are also used to understand how genes contribute to the development of a disease by serving as models for human diseases, such as cancer, cystic fibrosis, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s.
Gene therapy is the insertion of genes into an individual’s cells and tissues to treat diseases especially hereditary diseases. It does so by replacing a defective mutant allele with a functional one or gene targeting which involves gene amplification. Viruses that attack their hosts and introduce their genetic material into the host cell as part of their replication cycle are used as vectors to transfer healthy genes or more recentlyportions of genes. The current interest in the manipulation of microbes, plants, and animals has raised serious ethical questions.
1. Crystals of Bt toxin produced by some bacteria do not kill the bacteria themselves because –
(a) bacteria are resistant to the toxin
(b) toxin is immature;
(c) toxin is inactive;
(d) bacteria encloses toxin in a special sac.
2. What are transgenic bacteria? Illustrate using any one example.
3. Compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages of production of genetically modified crops.
4. What are Cry proteins? Name an organism that produce it. How has man exploited this protein to his benefit?
5. What is gene therapy? Illustrate using the example of adenosine deaminase (ADA) deficiency.
6. Digrammatically represent the experimental steps in cloning and expressing an human gene (say the gene for growth hormone) into a bacterium like E. coli ?
7. Can you suggest a method to remove oil (hydrocarbon) from seeds based on your understanding of rDNA technology and chemistry of oil?
8. Find out from internet what is golden rice.
9. Does our blood have proteases and nucleases?
10. Consult internet and find out how to make orally active protein pharmaceutical. What is the major problem to be encountered?
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