Today, traditional biotechnology is used in several ways in industry and agriculture. One of the most common traditional biotechnology used in industry is fermentation. Yeast is one of the oldest microbes commonly used in the fermentation process for baking bread and brewing alcoholic beverages (wines, rum, beer etc). It is also well known that bacteria are used to ferment the sugar present in milk to produce cheese and yoghurt. Similarly, bacteria cause fermentation of cabbage to make sauerkraut, a popular pickle in some countries.
Breeding and selection in plants and animals
Breeding and selection was earlier used to obtain higher yields, preferred characteristics and other benefits from plant or animal stock. For example, if a farmer wished to obtain a variety of tomato having smooth bright red skin and little acid, he could choose to cross-breed two tomato varieties, one with irregular red skin and very sour taste, and one variety with orange-red skin that is less sour. After breeding over several generations, he would be able to obtain the variety of tomato he desires.
A well known example in selective breeding of animals is the female horse and male donkey which essentially produces a mule. The mule is often larger than the donkey, having the characteristics of a horse, but a bit smaller than the horse and able to transport heavy loads, the characteristic of the donkey, the beast of burden.
Modern biotechnology employs some traditional methods, but it is founded on known facts about the living cell (considered the smallest unit of living things). Further, it explores the molecular components of the cell, specifically the Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA). DNA is thought of as the blueprint of the cell, and, by extension, life. Segments of the DNA molecule codes for a gene; genes are responsible for different characteristics. In the case of the tomato plant, genes determine the way the plant looks and feels, as well as the taste of its fruit, its red colour, and the toughness and texture of its skin among other things. Modern biotechnology is considered much more controlled, precise and safe.
Modern biotechnology incorporates techniques such as genetic engineering and recombinant DNA. Genetic engineering can be likened to other types of engineering. For example, a construction engineer may make changes to the plan of an old building. Similarly, he or she may construct a new house, using a plan as a guide to make it more environmentally-friendly, e.g., by incorporating the use of natural light to reduce dependence on and wastage of energy from fossil fuels. Similarly, in genetic engineering, the DNA material of the cell can be changed by adding or replacing genes; this, therefore, changes the plan or blueprint of the organism.
Applications of modern biotechnology
The changes to an organism’s DNA can result from the addition or removal of genes responsible for its physical characteristics – the way it looks, feels or tastes. The organism is now referred to as a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) or a living modified organism (LMO). This is because some of the organism’s original characteristics have been taken away or substituted. Referring to the farmer and tomato in the earlier example, modern biotechnology can be taken a step further – there is no need to wait for cross breeding. The genetic material desired is simply isolated and added to the DNA of the plant that needs to be modified. The offspring produced from the genetically modified plant will from then onwards express the characteristic it was engineered to express. Additionally, the plant can be modified to produce fruits with higher nutrient value e.g. higher vitamin C content – or as much as an orange. Even oranges can be engineered to produce more vitamin C so that one may just need to consume just a single orange to obtain their daily intake.
Taken further, current changes in the global climatic conditions have given rise to diverse issues, such as droughts and floods that have resulted in major challenges for agriculturists and farmers. Hence, modern biotechnology has now become relevant to counteract this growing phenomenon. Plants can be engineered to be resilient in environments prone to droughts and floods.
Biotechnology applications in Guyana
o The main forms of biotechnology practised in Guyana are plant tissue culture and natural products chemistry. The National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute (NAREI) has taken the lead in biotechnology and research in the agriculture sector in Guyana with the use of plant tissue culture. Much research has been conducted on the development of laboratory protocols for in-vitro micro-propagation and storage of cassava, pineapple, yams, sweet potato and plantains. Just recently, cassava was successfully cultured in-vitro in order to facilitate cross-border transfer of genetic material of Cassava. Research has also been conducted on inducing salt tolerance in rice.
o Industrial biotechnologies are also being utilized by Banks DIH Ltd. and Demerara Distillers Ltd. Though these are good examples of use of biotechnology in industry, the application of biotechnologies in the country as a whole in the industrial, medical and environment sectors is limited due primarily to the lack of technology and expertise.
Join us next week as we continue our series on Biotechnology, Biosafety and Biosecurity. We will focus global, regional and local initiatives that can and will influence the quality of life we lead.
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