Consult the website of the Cambridge Dictionary, and you’ll be told that the term ‘biotechnology’ refers to “the use of living things, especially cells and bacteria, in industrial processes”.
As for what all of that means in day-to-day life, well, you’d be frankly stunned by the wealth of biotechnology applications out there that intimately influence all manner of aspects of your daily life.
Biotechnology isn’t just big business – it’s also playing an instrumental role in addressing some of the most serious challenges of our time. So, let’s take a look at just some of the most significant uses of biotechnology today.
Ever-greater human longevity and the requirements of injury treatment have helped to spur on the development of regenerative medicine, including tissue engineering based on various bio-materials.
It is thought that it won’t be long until the combination of tissue engineering with stem cell technologies enables damaged or old human organs to be given new, functional replacements.
Beer, wine and alcohol
The many amazing uses of biotechnology aren’t restricted to the life-saving stuff, as it plays quite a part in a lot of the things we enjoy on a day-to-day basis – not least good old alcohol.
In fact, industrial biotechnology doesn’t come much simpler than alcohol production. Take beer, for example. It’s created using water, brewer’s yeast, a starch source such as barley and a flavouring such as hops.
The malting process activates the enzymes in the barley to convert the starch into sugar. This is followed by the fermenting process that involves the brewer’s yeast metabolising the sugars to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide.
People around the world with diabetes have had reason to be immensely thankful for biotechnology.
You might not have known, for instance, how few options insulin-dependent diabetics with an allergy to animal-derived insulin had prior to 1982.
Yes, you may have long associated that year with such world-changing events as the Falklands War and the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, but it was also the year a human version of insulin became available.
It was the first ever biotechnology medicine to be commercialised, and this recombinant insulin continues to save lives today.
Biodefence and public safety
In a world increasingly defined by such new and scary threats to public safety as biological and chemical agents, including nerve gases such as somain and sarin, it’s reassuring to know that biotechnology-produced enzymes exist that are capable of breaking down these toxic substances.
Did you know that a Danish firm has even recently developed a plant that assists in the detection of land mines by changing colours when its roots come into contact with a mine?
Another good example of a biotech process is DNA fingerprinting, which has played an instrumental role in criminal investigation, forensic medicine, anthropology and wildlife management.
The production process for first-generation biofuel is much like that for beer and wine-making, with plant-derived sugars being fermented to ethanol, while plant-oils can also be converted to biodiesel. Crops such as sugar, cane, corn, oil seed rape, sugar beet and wheat are used in such processes.
The blending of biofuels like biodiesel and bio ethanol with petrol and diesel enables increasingly stringent greenhouse gas emission legislation to be met.
We bet you didn’t realise that so many of the items you probably have in your house right now – such as mobile phone cases, pens, sunglasses, plastic food packaging and shampoo packaging – consist of bioplastics made from biopolymers.
As you can see, there are more than a few fascinating biotechnology applications these days, and the range is expanding all of the time.
This should certainly give you cause to think when you next glance around your house and consider all of the aspects of your day-to-day life that may well be drastically different if it wasn’t for biotechnology and its many astounding uses!