What is biotechnology and its applications?
Biotechnology's possible uses are not limited to one area, but very diverse. The biotechnologists research the microorganisms, plants, animals, and humans, as well as the smallest parts, such as individual cells or molecules. Biotechnology has been used for a long time. Humans have been using living microorganisms for a long time, for example, in beer, wine, and bread production. Modern biotechnology, as it is used today, uses the methods of molecular biology. The foundations for this were only laid with the growing knowledge of microbiology in the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, through the discovery of the first enzymes as biocatalysts or bacteria as producers of medicinal substances.
Cross-sectional technology for many industries
Today, biotechnology is a widely used cross-sectional technology. It can be used to develop new medicines, to breed new plant varieties, or to produce everyday products such as detergents and cosmetics more efficiently. Color theory has emerged to differentiate these different fields of application: For example, a distinction is made between red, green, and white biotechnology, which relates to the fields of medicine (red), agriculture (green), and industry (white).
With regard to the approximately 679 companies are active in biotechnology, there is a clear focus in medicine. This is also confirmed by the annual company survey carried out. According to this, a total of 347 companies (51%) developed new drugs or diagnostic tests in 2018. An almost equally large proportion of companies are not active in any special field, but for several user industries. A total of 203 companies (30%) were assigned to the category of non-specific applications defined by the OECD. This includes companies that exclusively or predominantly provide services for other biotech companies or act as suppliers to them. Pure contract producers of biological molecules without their own development activities were also included in this category.
The growing importance of white biotechnology
Industrial or white biotechnology follows at a greater distance. The development of technical enzymes, new biomaterials, or biotechnological production processes is the main field of activity. However, it should be noted that many activities in this area are not in the dedicated biotechnology companies, but in the Chemical industry running. Therefore, the importance of this sector as a whole should be assessed as greater.
Only 20 companies (2.9%) are green or agro-biotechnology. However, since this field is dominated by large companies, similar to white biotechnology, the field's importance is also to be assessed more than the pure number of dedicated biotechnology companies suggests. Forty companies (5.9%) deal with the field of bioinformatics, which is becoming increasingly important for many applications.
Red biotechnology: medicine
Medical biotechnology is also called red biotechnology and deals with the development of new therapeutic and diagnostic methods. As it is understood today, the foundations of medical biotechnology were only laid a few decades ago in the course of modern genome research. The discovery of the molecular structure of DNA as a hereditary molecule in 1953 by the Americans James Watson and Francis Crick triggered an enormous boost. A milestone that was not so long ago is the deciphering of the human genome in 2001. Since then, methods for genome analysis have continued to advance.
The genetic information is the blueprint of all life processes. In order to track down the mechanisms of diseases, knowledge of these blueprints is very important. The better the researchers understand which genes are responsible for the production of certain protein molecules, the more likely they are to develop targeted drugs. This is exactly one of the goals in medical biotechnology: to use biological molecules in a very targeted manner for therapeutic purposes. Understanding the genome (all genes) and the proteome (all proteins) are fundamental requirements for biotechnologists. Genome research and proteome research are among the most important platform technologies in biotechnology.
Especially in the case of common diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, or cancer, scientists have already discovered numerous new approaches based on the latest findings for even more efficient treatment with fewer side effects or even healing of diseases. So far, only symptoms of a disease have been treated, but the knowledge of genome and proteome researchers can now be used to target the causes. In this way, biotechnology opens up completely new options and, at the same time, improves the possible uses for the classic pharmaceutical molecules industry. Here too, biotechnological processes help to find new or more effective target structures. The concept of using and developing drugs according to a person's molecular biological signature is taken under the term personalized or individualized medicine. Cancer is one of the most frequently researched clinical pictures.
As the biotechnology company survey carried out annually, medicine is one of the most important areas of application for biotechnology for companies. However, it is not only used in the development of new therapeutic approaches. Nowadays, the manufacture of medicines is also increasingly biotechnological. According to the Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (VFA), a total of 274 biotechnologically manufactured drugs and vaccines were approved at the end of 2017. They are manufactured in specially-developed bioreactors. Microorganisms or animal cells produce the desired preparation there. This is especially true for protein-based drugs such as antibodies or hormones. Such active biomolecules can only be produced in their three-dimensional form by living organisms or cells. A chemical replica does not work. It is due to genetic engineering that microorganisms and cells can now be genetically modified to precisely produce the desired biomolecule. In this way, drugs are created for millions of patients who have diabetes (diabetes). The insulin used for this therapy is produced in genetically modified bacteria and mammalian cells. In this way, drugs are created for millions of patients who have diabetes (diabetes). The insulin used for this therapy is produced in genetically modified bacteria and mammalian cells. In this way, drugs are created for millions of patients who have diabetes (diabetes). The insulin used for this therapy is produced in genetically modified bacteria and mammalian cells.
Medical biotechnology as an economic factor
The importance of drugs manufactured in this way is also reflected in the statistics: According to the Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (VFA), biotechnologically manufactured drugs contributed 10.2 billion euros to 26% of the total turnover of the pharmaceutical industry in Europe in 2017. For example, biotechnological vaccines are used to prevent diseases, or recombinant proteins are used to treat patients with chronic, serious, and rare diseases. Protein drugs play an important role, particularly in the treatment of immunological diseases (e.g., rheumatism) and cancer. After the United States, Germany is the largest production location for biotechnologically manufactured drugs worldwide.
Green biotechnology: agriculture
If biotechnological processes are used in agriculture, we speak of green biotechnology or agro-biotechnology. Without such methods, modern agriculture is no longer conceivable. The foundations for this were laid above all by plant genome research, which has brought to light more and more knowledge in recent years that can be used specifically for the breeding of new plant varieties.
Indirectly, however, plants' genetic optimization has always been the goal of humans, even if it wasn't called that at the time: Already thousands of years ago, farmers selected plants that showed desirable properties in their outward appearance, and continued to increase them. Careful crossing and backcrossing have changed the plants' genetic makeup so that they produce sweet apples or huge corn cobs. What happened when crossing and backcrossing on the genetic level remained hidden until Gregor Mendel finally laid the foundation for today's modern genetics with his inheritance theory in the 19th century? Since then, the secret of plant genes has been revealed more and more.
The advantage of this knowledge is obvious: In the past, breeders had to rely solely on observing and analyzing external characteristics and their experience whether the plant created by crossing was an object with the desired properties or not. How tedious these processes were and still are in today's breeding is shown by the sometimes decades-long development times of new plant varieties. Only the progress of the genome researchers' knowledge has contributed to a major change here. The milestones in green biotechnology were consequently the complete genetic sequencing of the crop plant Arabidopsis thaliana in 2000 and the decoding of the rice genome two years later.
White biotechnology: industry
Whether in the detergent or in the skin cream - biotechnology is in a variety of industrial products. In this context, experts speak of white or industrial biotechnology. The reach into nature's toolbox helps the industry to work more resource-efficiently and environmentally friendly. This applies to many foods that have relied on the power of living microorganisms for centuries, such as bread, cheese, beer, and wine. But also in the production of high-quality chemicals, pharmaceuticals, vitamins, detergents, and cleaning agents, in the finishing of textiles, leather, and paper and in the production of many other frequently used objects, methods of white biotechnology have become an integral part of the production process.
The use of natural helpers has a long tradition. Methods of fermenting sugary foods into alcohol using yeast, lactic acid using Lactobacillus strains, or producing vinegar using special Acetobacter species have been known in many cultures long before microorganisms were discovered or the processes underlying them were understood. The first applications can be found as early as 6,000 BC—500 BC when the Sumerians brewed an alcoholic beer-like drink from sprouted barley in Mesopotamia. But were living microorganisms used in the production of wine, sourdough bread, or cheese from the start? Only nobody knew that at the time.
Microorganisms as the basis of white biotechnology
The discovery of microorganisms and the biochemical basis of fermentative processes only took place over the past three centuries. For example, Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) discovered microorganisms in contaminated wine barrels in 1856, which he named after their shape with the Greek word for chopsticks Bacterial. He also found out how fermentation works: while lactic acid bacteria (lactobacilli) produce lactic acid from sugar, yeasts ferment the sugar into alcohol in the wine barrels. With his experiments, Pasteur laid the foundation for understanding fermentation and founded modern microbiology. With his realization that "the role of the infinitely small in nature is infinitely large," the way was paved for modern biotechnology.
Further impulses for the development of this branch of research came from medicine. Robert Koch (1843–1910) was one of the first scientists to recognize the importance of microorganisms as pathogens. Koch discovered the anthrax bacterium in 1876 and identified the tuberculosis pathogen in 1882. Previously, it was not microorganisms but so-called miasms - air-polluting poisons - that caused the disease.
At the same time, the chemists provided another piece of the puzzle in the overall understanding of microbiology. In the 18th century, researchers observed that the degradation of a substance could sometimes be accelerated by adding another substance that was apparently not consumed. It was soon possible to extract substances from plants and animal tissues that were associated with the observed reactions and called "ferments." In the 19th century, it finally became clear that these were natural biocatalysts. At this time, the name "Enzyme" (from the Greek "in the yeast") was coined for the biocatalysts. From now on, it was applied to all ferments.
Biologization of the industry
Biotechnological applications in industrial production were used early in leather tanning, which no longer exists in this form, already produced the first industrially used enzyme product OROPON® in 1909. It consisted of enzymes that break down proteins and decisively improved leather tanning. Until then, stains from dog feces and pigeon manure had been used to treat the skins and skins, which could now be replaced by the much more environmentally friendly and cleaner product.
Genome research ultimately pushed the dynamic development of modern white biotechnology ever further. This knowledge laid the foundations for the fact that the evolutionarily created biosynthetic diversity of living nature can now be used much more specifically for industrial processes. Since the 1980s and 1990s, the demand for sustainable economic practices has increasingly brought natural resources into society's focus. For politicians and the business community, this led to the realization that the securing of natural resources for future generations cannot be guaranteed in the long term with existing industrial processes. Above all, the finite nature of fossil fuels contributed to rethinking and increasingly initiated the search for alternatives.
Ecological advantages of biotechnological processes
Biotechnological, compared to chemical processes, offers the advantage that processes can often take place under mild, environmentally friendly conditions. Microorganisms accomplish complex substance conversions with high yield at room temperature and normal pressure, for which chemical processes require high temperatures and high pressure. For this reason, ecological expectations are always linked to industrial biotechnology. In many areas - such as the production of detergents or textiles - these have already been fulfilled. Biocatalysts in detergents help to reduce the washing temperature.
Biotechnologists have again developed enzyme-based processes in the textile industry to produce the popular stonewashed effect in jeans. This was previously achieved using a pumice stone. Food additives such as citric acid and medicines such as antibiotics produced using genetically modified microorganisms have long been established. They are, therefore, among the economically most important products in white biotechnology. Hardly any chemical company today dispenses with such processes. At the same time, a small but dynamic scene of biotechnology companies that offer their services to the industry has established itself.
Many different foods, but also high-quality chemicals, enzymes, pharmaceuticals, vitamins, detergents, and cleaning agents as well as agrochemicals, are already produced with biotechnology in its various facets. Have high market significance, with currently approximately 80 billion. In addition, there are products of red biotechnology, the market volume of which already exceeds 100 billion euros within the pharmaceutical industry. Various studies and analyzes on the potential of white biotechnology expect the share of biotechnological processes in the manufacture of chemical products to increase significantly in the coming years. In the "Cologne Paper" experts estimate
In many other areas of application, however, developments have only just begun, especially in the production of bio plastics or the generation of energy from renewable raw materials. Here, future research work must first lay the foundation for an actually efficient production method - and biotechnology can make a decisive contribution to this.
Author: Vicki Lezama