Understanding biotechnology

What is biotechnology?

Although humankind has been using techniques that may be described as biotechnological for centuries, the term itself only came into common usage in the early part of the twentieth century. In the past, biotechnology might have involved things like artificial selection processes for improving the ability of certain crops to survive, for example. Then, there is hybridisation, a way in which people have made entirely new sub-species for themselves. These days, biotechnology includes all sorts of molecular-level processes to engineer the biologies of both plants and animals. It covers bio-manufacturing, bio-engineering, medicine production, gene therapies and food production, among many other aspects.

 What biotechnology crops are grown?

 Many established fruit tree variants, for example, have been derived from biotech methods. However, modern biotechnology crops have gone far beyond the centuries-old techniques used by farmers and horticulturists. These days, maize, soya beans, sugar beet, papaya and certain squashes are all widely grown from variants derived by careful modifications made in the laboratory. So-called genetically modified crops are now grown in around 30 countries around the world. Some people are concerned that the results of cross-fertilisation between such species and natural ones will have unintended consequences, so such crops tend to be monitored carefully.

Can biotechnology solve world hunger?

This is the great hope for many scientists working in the field of biotechnology. Given that the world's population is rapidly growing apace, there is a need for ever more efficiency from the remaining agricultural land that people do not occupy. Biotechnology can certainly help to produce crops which fail less often, that are hardier when it comes to environmental conditions and less susceptible to blight. However, biotechnology alone cannot solve the sort of hunger that is derived from poor food distribution and waste.

Can biotechnology turn the tide on plastics?

Some scientific research is ongoing to try and find ways whereby natural organisms might be developed which 'consume' waste plastics to remove them from the environment. In particular, work is underway to discover a means of degrading thermoplastics before they enter the food chain and pollute the world's oceans. Some adapted insect larvae, for instance, are being studied to see whether or not they can fulfil this global clean-up role.

How will biotechnology affect our futures?

Despite the aforementioned concerns over genetically modified crops, it is likely that biotechnology in its wider sense, is going to be something that is around for a long time. After all, we have probably all eaten a species of apple which has been subject to human intervention of some sort. Biotechnology is already helping develop certain medical treatments, it may mean helping to reduce carbon emissions in agriculture, and it could even help to produce better biofuels for the transportation sector, as well.

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