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Biotechnology, or understanding what life is to improve how it works

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Biotechnology is by no means a new discipline, although it does encompass many others. Today, it is advancing by leaps and bounds and has an increasing range of applications: from pharmaceutical development, with the production of vaccines for COVID-19, to the creation of biofuels and more sustainable industrial processes, not to mention the treatment of polluting waste.

The wine fermentation practiced by the ancient Egyptians was biotechnology: they just didn't know it. This is explained by the Mexican scientists Martha Gabriela Ferrer and Bibiana Moreno-Carranza in their work 'Los grandes apellidos de la biotecnología' (The great surnames of biotechnology). The name of the discipline was coined in 1919 by the Hungarian agronomist Károly Ereki in his work 'Biotechnology in meat and dairy production on a large farm'. Thus there officially emerged a discipline initially linked to the food industry. Later it was incorporated into more sectors: agriculture, medicine, animal health, textiles, pharmacology (new drugs and vaccines), food and the environment.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) document 'A Framework for Biotechnology Statistics' defines biotechnology as "the application of science and technology to living organisms, as well as their parts, products and models, for the purpose of altering living or non-living materials for the production of knowledge, goods and services." Previously, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (1992) understood it as "any technological application that uses biological systems and living organisms or their derivatives to create or modify products or processes for specific uses."

Fields of knowledge

Both descriptions are sufficiently general so that a number of increasingly sophisticated techniques and areas can fit into their "pockets" without bursting at the seams: DNA, proteins and other molecules, cells and tissues, cultures and engineering, processing techniques, gene vectors and RNA (ribonucleic acid), CRISPR (repetitive sequences in the DNA of bacteria that function as autovaccines) or genetic scissors, nanobiotechnology and bioinformatics.

Biotechnology contributed to the discovery of penicillin (Alexander Fleming, 1928) and DNA as a gene carrier (Oswald Theodore Avery, 1943), the birth of the first test-tube baby (Louise Joy Brown, 1978) and the introduction of the first genetically modified organism (a tobacco plant, 1983). Biotechnology also led to the first cloning of a mammal (Dolly the sheep, 1997) and to the first draft map of the human genome (published by the journals 'Science' and 'Nature' in 2001).

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A leading light in the fight against the pandemic

Biotechnology has also excelled in the fight against coronavirus, lending visibility to this scientific field that is almost unknown to the general public. Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), an organization of the global biotechnology industry, monitors the therapeutic developments against COVID-19 that biopharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are conducting to combat the virus. By early March 2021, it had 209 vaccines, 393 treatments and 239 antivirals in development.

"We have a key role to play in the present and future of our society," says the Ecuadorian Érika Bodniza, a biotechnology engineer who is a postgraduate student at the University of Louvain, Belgium, and stresses the importance of increasing scientific investment to prevent disasters such as pandemics. "Our goal is to contribute to sustainability, health, better resource management and stewardship, agriculture and food systems," she added. Bodniza, a graduate of the Universidad de las Américas (UDLA), highlights the diversity of her biotechnology studies (including biology, physics, chemistry, engineering, mathematics and statistics) that reflect a multidisciplinary approach in the practical application of science.

Biotechnological rainbow

"There are several classifications of biotechnology based on their areas of application, but perhaps the most popular is by color coding," wrote Paweł Kafarski, professor at Wrocław University of Science and Technology (Poland), in his article 'Rainbow code of biotechnology.' The most common hues of this particular rainbow are green for agriculture, yellow for nutritional biotechnology, red for medicine and human health, white for industrial processes, gray for environmental protection, blue for marine ecosystems, and gold for bioinformatics.

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Achievements Pest- and disease resistant plants, biofuels from microalgae or renewable resources, antibiotics and biodegradable polymers to replace materials from fossil fuels, and more. The OECD report recognized the positive impacts of biotechnology, whether economic ("evolution in the characteristics of products and processes"), social ("improvements in health") or environmental ("to preserve biodiversity or develop more environmentally friendly manufacturing processes").

"I want to start my own company based on the functionality of biological components and materials that we consider waste or residues but have great potential to obtain food ingredients, flavorings or additives," said Bodniza, who specializes in food biotechnology. Her colleague Edgar Andres Velastegui has chosen industrial biotech. "Everyone is talking about COVID-19 vaccines, but few are wondering how they will be produced, or how soon they will be able to meet global demand.... That's what interests me," he said.

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