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Biotechnology is a set of techniques by which human beings modify living things or use them as tools. In its modern form, biotechnology uses the techniques of molecular biology to understand and manipulate the basic building blocks of living things. The earliest biotechnology, however, was the selective breeding of plants and animals to improve their food value. This was followed in time by the use of yeast to make bread, wine, and beer. These early forms of biotechnology began about ten thousand years ago and lie at the basis of human cultural evolution from small bands of hunter-gatherers to large, settled communities, cities, and nations, giving rise, in turn, to writing and other technologies. It is doubtful that, at the outset, the first biotechnologists understood the effects of their actions, and so the reason for their persistence in pursuing, for example, selective breeding over the hundreds of generations necessary to show much advantage in food value, remains something of a mystery.

The world's historic religions emerged within the context of agriculture and primitive biotechnology, and as one might expect they are at home in that context, for instance through their affirmation of agricultural festivals. In addition, Christianity took the view that nature itself has a history, according to which, nature originally was a perfectly ordered garden, but as a result of human refusal to live within limits, nature was cursed or disordered by its creator. The curse makes nature at once historic, disordered, both friendly and hostile to human life, and open to improvement through human work. These effects fall especially on human agriculture and childbirth, both of which are focal areas of biotechnology.

By the time of Charles Darwin (18091882), plant and animal breeders were deliberate and highly successful in applying techniques of selective breeding to achieve specific, intended results. Darwin's theory of evolution is built in part on his observation of the ability of animal breeders to modify species. The work of human breeders helped Darwin see that species are variable, dynamic, and subject to change. Inspired by the success of intentional selective breeding, Darwin proposed his theory of natural selection, by which nature unintentionally acts something like a human breeder. Nature, however, uses environmental selection, which favors certain individuals over others in breeding. The theory of natural selection, of course, led to a profound shift in human consciousness about the fluidity of life, which in turn fueled modern biotechnology and its view that life may be improved. While Christianity struggled with other implications of Darwinism, it did not object to the prospect that human beings can modify nature, perhaps even human nature.

The emergence of modern biotechnology

In the twentieth century, as biologists refined Darwin's proposal and explored its relationship to genetics, plant breeders such as Luther Burbank (18491926) and Norman Borlaug (1914) took selective breeding to new levels of success, significantly increasing the quality and quantity of basic food crops. But it was the late twentieth-century breakthroughs in molecular biology and genetic engineering that established the technological basis for modern biotechnology. The discovery that units of hereditary information, or genes, reside in cells in a long molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid (or DNA) led to an understanding of the structure of DNA and the technology to manipulate it. Biotechnology is no longer limited to the genes found in nature or to those that could be moved within a species by breeding. Bioengineers can move genes from one species to another, from bacteria to human beings, and they can modify them within organisms.

The discovery in 1953 of the structure of DNA by Francis Crick (b. 1916) and James Watson (b. 1928) is but one key step in the story of molecular biology. Within two decades, this discovery opened the pathway to the knowledge of the socalled genetic alphabet or code of chemical bases that carry genetic information, an understanding of the relationship between that code and the proteins that result from it, and the ability to modify these structures and processes (genetic engineering). The decade of the 1980s saw the first transgenic mammals, which are mammals engineered to carry a gene from other species and to transmit it to their offspring, as well as important advances in the ability to multiply copies of DNA (polymerase chain reaction or PCR). The Human Genome Project, an international effort begun around 1990 to detail the entire DNA information contained in human cells, sparked the development of bioinfomatics, the use of powerful computers to acquire, store, share, and sort genetic information. As a result, not only is a standard human DNA sequence fully known (published in February 2001), but it is now possible to determine the detailed code in any DNA strand quickly and cheaply, a development likely to have wide applications in medicine and beyond.

Biotechnology is also dependent upon embryology and reproductive technology, a set of techniques by which animal reproduction is assisted or modified. These techniques were developed largely for agricultural purposes and include artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and other ways of manipulating embryos or the gametes that produce them. In 1978, the first in vitro human being was born, and new techniques are being added to what reproductive clinics can do to help women achieve pregnancy. These developments have been opposed by many Orthodox Christian and Roman Catholic theologians, by the Vatican, and by some Protestants, notably Paul Ramsey. Other faith traditions have generally accepted these technologies. In addition, some feminist scholars have criticized reproductive medicine as meeting the desires of men at the expense of women and their health.

Reproductive medicine, however it may be assessed on its own merits, does raise new concerns when it is joined with other forms of biotechnology, such as genetic testing and genetic engineering. In the 1990s, in vitro fertilization was joined with genetic testing, allowing physicians to work with couples at risk for a genetic disease by offering them the option of conceiving multiple embryos, screening them for disease before implantation, and implanting only those that were not likely to develop the disease. This technique, known as preimplantation diagnosis, is accepted as helpful by many Muslim, Jewish, and Protestant theologians, but is rejected by Orthodox Christians and in official Catholic statements. The ground for this objection is that the human embryo must be shown the respect due human life, all the more so because it is weak and vulnerable. It is permissible to treat the embryo as a patient, but not to harm it or discard it in order to treat infertility or to benefit another. The usual counterargument is to reject the view that the embryo should be respected as a human life or a person.

The significance of stem cells and cloning

Developments in cloning and in the science and technology of stem cells offer additional tools for biotechnology. In popular understanding, cloning is usually seen as a technique of reproduction, and of course it does have that potential. The birth of Dolly, the cloned sheep, announced in 1997, was a surprising achievement that suggests that any mammal, including human beings, can be created from a cell taken from a previously existing individual. Many who accept reproductive technology generally, including such techniques as in vitro fertilization, found themselves opposing human reproductive cloning, but they are not sure how to distinguish between the two in religiously or morally compelling ways. With few exceptions, however, religious institutions and leaders from all faith traditions have opposed human reproductive cloning, if only because the issues of safety seem insurmountable for the foreseeable future. At the same time, almost no one has addressed the religious or moral implications of the use of reproductive cloning for mammals other than human beings, although it has been suggested that it would not be wise or appropriate to use the technique to produce large herds of livestock for food because of the risk of a pathogen destroying the entire herd.

The technique used to create Dollythe transfer of the nuclear DNA from an adult cell to an egg, thereby creating an embryo and starting it through its own developmental processcan serve purposes other than reproduction, and it is these other uses that are especially interesting to biotechnology. Of particular interest is the joining of the nuclear transfer technique with the use of embryonic stem cells to treat human disease. In 1998, researchers announced success in deriving human embryonic stem cells from donated embryos. These cells show promise for treating many diseases. Once derived, they seem to be capable of being cultured indefinitely, dividing and doubling in number about every thirty hours. As of 2002, researchers have some confidence that these cells can be implanted in the human body at the site of disease or injury, where they can proliferate and develop further, and thereby take up the function of cells that were destroyed or impaired.

Stem cells, of course, can be derived from sources other than the embryo, and research is underway to discover the promise of stem cells derived from alternative sources. There are two advantages in using these other sources. First, no embryos are destroyed in deriving these cells. For anyone who sets a high standard of protection for the human embryo, the destruction of the embryo calls into question the morality of any use of embryonic stem cells. Second, the use of stem cells from sources other than an embryo may mean that in time, medical researchers will learn how to derive healing cells from the patient's own body. The advantage here is that these cells, when implanted, will not be rejected by the patient's immune system. Embryonic stem cells, which may have advantages in terms of their developmental plasticity, are decidedly problematic because of the immune response.

One way to eliminate the immune response is to use nuclear transfer to create an embryo for the patient, harvesting stem cells from that embryo (thereby destroying it) and implanting these cells in the patient. Because they bear the patient's DNA, they should not be rejected. This approach is medically complicated, however, and involves the morally problematic step of creating an embryo to be destroyed for the benefit of another.

Nonhuman applications

As a result of the developments in the underlying science and technologies, biotechnology is able to modify any form of life in ways that seem to be limited only by the imagination or the market. Biotechnology has produced genetically modified microorganisms for purposes ranging from toxic waste clean-up to the production of medicine. For example, by inserting a human gene into a bacterium that is grown in bulk, biotechnology is able to create a living factory of organisms that have been engineered to make a specific human protein. Such technologies may also be used to enhance the virulence of organisms, to create weapons for bioterrorism, or to look for means of defense against such weapons. Aside from obvious concerns about weapons development, religious institutions and scholars have not objected to these uses of biotechnology, although some Protestant groups question the need for patents, especially when sought for specific genes.

Plants, perhaps the first organisms modified by the earliest biotechnology, remain the subject of intense efforts. Around the year 2000, major advances were made in plant genome research, leading to the possibility that the full gene system of some plant species can be studied in detail, and the ways in which plants respond to their environment may be understood as never before. Some attention is given to plants for pharmaceutical purposes, but the primary interest of biotechnology in plants is to improve their value and efficiency as sources of food. For instance, attempts have been made to increase the protein value of plants like rice. The dependence of farm plants on fertilizer and pesticides may also be reduced using biotechnology to engineer plants that, for instance, are resistant to certain insects.

In the 1990s, the expanding use of genetically modified plants in agriculture was met with growing concerns about their effects on health and on the environment. Adding proteins to plants by altering their genes might cause health problems for at least some who consume the plants, perhaps through rare allergic reactions. Genes that produce proteins harmful to some insects may cause harm to other organisms, and they might even jump from the modified farm plant to wild plants growing nearby. Furthermore, some believe that consumers have a right to avoid food that is altered by modern biotechnology, and so strict segregation and labeling must be required. Deeply held values about food and, to some extent, its religious significance underlie many of these concerns. In Europe and the United Kingdom, where public opposition to genetically modified food has been strong, some churches have objected to excessive reliance upon biotechnology in food production and have supported the right of consumers to choose, while at the same time recognizing that biotechnology can increase the amount and the value of food available to the world's neediest people.

Animals are also modified by biotechnology, and this raises additional concerns for animal welfare. Usually the purpose of the modification is related to human health. Biotechnologists may, for example, create animals that produce pharmaceuticals that are expressed, for instance, in milk, or they may create animal research models that mimic human disease. These modifications usually involve a change in the animal germlinethat is, they are transmissible to future generations and they affect every cell in the body. Such animals may be patented, at least in some countries. All this raises concern about what some see as the commodification of life, the creation of unnecessary suffering for the animals, and a reductionistic attitude toward nature that sees animals as nothing but raw materials that may be reshaped according to human interest.

Human applications

It is the human applications of biotechnology, however, that elicit the most thorough and intense religious responses. As of 2002, genetic technologies are used to screen for a wide range of genetic conditions, but treatments for these diseases are slow to develop. Screening and testing of pregnancies, newborns, and adults have become widespread in medicine, and the resulting knowledge is used to plan for and sometimes prevent the development of disease, or to terminate a pregnancy in order to prevent the birth of an infant with foreseeable health problems. Some religious bodies, especially Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian, vigorously criticize this use of genetic testing. One particular use of prenatal testingto identify the sex of the unborn and to abort femalesis thought to be widespread in cultures that put a high priority on having sons, even though it is universally criticized. It is believed that the uses of testing will grow, while the technologies to treat disease will lag behind.

Attempts at treatment lie along two general pathways: pharmaceuticals and gene therapy. Biotechnology offers new insight into the fundamental processes of disease, either by the creation of animal models or by insight into the functions of human cells. With this understanding, researchers are able to design pharmaceutical products with precise knowledge of their molecular and cellular effects, with greater awareness of which patients will benefit, and with fewer side effects. This is leading to a revolution in pharmaceutical products and is proving to be effective in treating a range of diseases, including cancer, but at rapidly increasing costs and amidst growing concerns about access to these benefits, especially in the poorest nations.

Gene therapy, begun in human beings in 1990, tries to treat disease by modifying the genes that affect its development. Originally the idea was to treat the classic genetic diseases, such as Tay Sachs or cystic fibrosis, and it is expected that in time this technique will offer some help in treating these diseases. But gene therapy will probably find far wider use in treating other diseases not usually seen as genetic because researchers have learned how genes play a role in the body's response to every disease. Modifying this response may be a pathway to novel therapies, by which the body treats itself from the molecular level. For instance, it has been shown that modified genes can trigger the regeneration of blood vessels around the heart. In time these approaches will probably be joined with stem cell techniques and with other cell technologies, giving medicine a range of new methods for modifying the body in order to regenerate cells and tissues.

Religious opinion has generally supported gene therapy, seeing it as essentially an extension of traditional therapies. At the same time, both religious scholars and bioethicists have begun to debate the prospect that these technologies will be used not just to treat disease but to modify traits, such as athletic or mental ability, that have nothing to do with disease, perhaps to enhance these traits for competitive reasons. Many accept the idea of therapy but reject enhancement, believing that there is a significant difference between the two goals. Many scholars, however, are skeptical about whether an unambiguous distinction can be drawn, much less enforced, between therapy and enhancement. Starting down the pathway of gene therapy may mean that human genetic enhancement is likely to follow. This prospect raises religious concerns that people who can afford to do so will acquire genetic advantages that will lead to further privilege, or that people will use these technologies to accommodate rather than challenge social prejudices.

It is also expected that these techniques will be joined with reproductive technologies, opening the prospect that future generations of humans can be modified. The prospect of such germline modification is greeted with fear and opposition by many, usually for reasons that suggest religious themes. In Europe, germline modification is generally rejected as a violation of the human rights of future generations, specifically the right to be born with a genome unaffected by technology. In the United States, the opposition is less adamant but deeply apprehensive about issues of safety and about the long-term societal impact of what are popularly called "designer babies." Religious bodies have supported these concerns and have called either for total opposition or careful deliberation.

How far biotechnology can go is limited by the complexities of life processes, in particular in the subtleties of interaction between DNA and the environment. Biotechnology itself helps researchers discover these subtleties, and as much as biotechnology depends upon the sciences of biology and genetics, it must be noted that the influence between technology and science is reciprocal. The Human Genome Project, for instance, opened important new questions about human evolution and about how DNA results in proteins. Knowledge of the genomes of various species reveals that the relationship between human beings and distant species, such as single-celled or relatively simple organisms, turns out to be surprisingly close, suggesting that evolution conserves genes as species diverge.

Perhaps even more surprising is the way in which the Project has challenged the standard view in modern genetics of the tight relationship between each gene and its protein, the so-called dogma of one gene, one protein. It turns out that human beings have about one hundred thousand proteins but only about thirty-three thousand genes, and that genes are more elusive and dynamic than once thought. It appears that DNA sequences from various chromosomes assemble to become the functional gene, the complete template necessary to specify the protein, and that these various sequences can assemble in more than one way, leading to more than one protein. Such dynamic complexity allows some thirty-three thousand DNA coding sequences to function as the templates for one hundred thousand proteins. But this complexity, in view of the limited understanding of the processes that define it, means that the ability to modify DNA sequences may have limited success and unpredictable consequences, which should lower confidence in genetic engineering, especially when applied to human beings.

Biotechnology is further limited by financial factors. Most biotechnology is pursued within a commercial context, and the prospect of near-term financial return must be present to support research. Biotechnology depends upon access to capital and upon legal protection for intellectual property, such as the controversial policy of granting patent protection on DNA sequences or genes and on genetically modified organisms, including mammals. This financial dependence is itself a matter of controversy, giving rise to the fear that life itself is becoming a mere commodity or that the only values are those of the market.

A look ahead

There is no reason, however, to think that biotechnology has reached the limits of its powers. On the contrary, biotechnology is growing not just in the scope of its applications but in the range and power of its techniques. Biotechnology's access to the whole genomes of human beings and other species means that the dynamic action and interaction of the entire set of genes can be monitored. In one sense, the completion of full genomes ushers in what some have called post-genomic biotechnology, characterized by a new vantage point of a systematic overview of the cell and the organism. This is proving valuable, for instance, in opening new understandings of cancer as a series of mutation events within a set of cells in the body. Attention is turning, however, from the study of genes to the study of proteins, which are more numerous than genes but also more dynamic, coming quickly into and out of existence in the trillions of cells of the human body according to precise temporal and spatial signals. Most human proteins are created only in a small percentage of cells, during a limited period of human development, and only in precisely regulated quantities. Studying this full set of proteins, in all its functional dynamism, is a daunting task requiring technologies that do not exist at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The systematic study of proteins, called proteomics, may in fact become a new international project for biology, leading in time to a profound expansion of the powers of biotechnology.

In time, researchers will develop powerful new methods for modifying DNA, probably with far higher precision and effectiveness than current techniques allow, and perhaps with the ability to transfer large amounts of DNA into living cells and organisms. Computer power, which is essential to undertakings like the Human Genome Project and to their application, continues to grow, along with developments such as the so-called gene chip, using DNA as an integrated part of the computing device. Advances in engineering at the very small scale, known as nanotechnology (from nanometer, a billionth of a meter), suggest that molecular scale devices may someday be used to modify biological functions at the molecular level. For instance, nanotechnology devices in quantity may be inserted into the human body to enter cells, where they might modify DNA or other molecules. In another area of research, scientists are exploring the possibility that DNA itself may be used as a computer or a data storage device. DNA is capable of storing information more efficiently than current storage media, and it may be possible to exploit this capacity.

It is impossible to predict when new techniques will be developed or what powers they will bring. It is clear, however, that new techniques will be found and that they will converge in their effectiveness to modify life. Precisely designed pharmaceutical products will be available to treat nearly every disease, often by interrupting them at the molecular level and doing so in ways that match the specific needs of the patient. Stem cells, whether derived from embryos or from patients themselves, will probably be used to regenerate nearly any tissue or cell in the body, perhaps even portions of organs, including the brain. The genes in patients' bodies will be modified, either to correct a genetic anomaly that underlies a disease or to trigger a special response in specific cells to treat a disease or injury. It is more difficult to foresee the full extent of the long-term consequences of biotechnology on nonhuman species, on the ecosystem, on colonies of life beyond Earth, and on the human species itself; estimates vary in the extreme. Some suggest that through these means, human beings will engineer their own biological enhancements, perhaps becoming two or more species.

The prospect of these transformations has evoked various religious responses, and scholars from many traditions have been divided in their assessments. Those who support and endorse biotechnology stress religious duties to heal the sick and feed the hungry. Most hold the view that nature is to be improved, perhaps within limits, and that human beings are authorized to modify the processes of life. Some suggest that creation is not static but progressive, and that human beings are co-creators with God in the achievement of its full promise.

Others believe biotechnology will pervert nature and undermine human existence and its moral basis. They argue, for instance, that genetic modifications of offspring will damage the relationship between parents and children by reducing children to objects, products of technology, and limit their freedom to grow into persons in relationship with others. Some warn that saying yes to biotechnology now will make it impossible to say no in the future. Still others suggest that the point is not to try to stop biotechnology but to learn to live humanely with its powers, and as much as possible to steer it away from selfish or excessive uses and toward compassionate and just ends.

See also Cloning; Darwin, Charles; DNA; Evolution; Eugenics; Gene Patenting; Gene Therapy; Genetically Modified Organisms; Genetic Engineering; Genetics; Genetic Testing; Human Genome Project; In Vitro Fertilization; Reproductive Technology; Stem Cell Research


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ronald cole-turner

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BIOTECHNOLOGY. Biotechnology, in its broadest sense, is the use of biological systems to carry out technical processes. Food biotechnology uses genetic methods to enhance food properties and to improve production, and in particular uses direct (rather than random) strategies to modify genes that are responsible for traits such as a vegetable's nutritional content. Using modern biotechnology, scientists can move genes for valuable traits from one plant into another plant. This way, they can make a plant taste or look better, be more nutritious, protect itself from insects, produce more food, or survive and prosper in inhospitable environments, for example, by incorporating tolerance to increased soil salinity. Simply put, food biotechnology is the practice of directing genetic changes in organisms that produce food in order to make a better product.

In nature, plants produce their own chemical defenses to ward off disease and insects thereby reducing the need for insecticide sprays. Biotechnology is often used to enhance these defenses. Some improvements are crop specific. For example, potatoes with a higher starch content will absorb less oil when frying, and tomatoes with delayed ripening qualities will have improved taste and freshness.

Paving the Way to Modern Biotechnology

Advances in science over many years account for what we know and are able to accomplish with modern biotechnology and food production. A brief review of genetics and biochemistry is useful in evaluating the role of biotechnology in our food supply.

Proteins are composed of various combinations of amino acids. They are essential for lifeboth for an organism's structure, and for the metabolic reactions necessary for the organism to function. The number, kind, and order of amino acids in a specific protein determine its properties. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which is present in all the cells of all organisms, contains the information needed for cells to put amino acids in the correct order. In other words, DNA contains the genetic blueprint determining how cells in all living organisms store, duplicate, and pass information about protein structure from generation to generation.

In 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick published their discovery that the molecular structure of DNA is a double helix, for which they, along with Maurice H. F. Wilkins, won a Nobel Prize in 1962. Two strands of DNA are composed of pairs of chemicalsadenine (A) and thymine (T); and guanine (G) and cytosine (C). A segment of DNA that encodes enough information to make one protein is called a gene. It is the order of DNA's base pairs that determines specific genes that code for specific proteins, which determines individual traits.

By 1973 scientists had found ways to isolate individual genes, and by the 1980s, scientists could transfer single genes from one organism to another. This process, much like traditional crossbreeding, allows transferred traits to pass to future generations of the recipient organism.

One Goal, Two Approaches

The objective of plant biotechnology and traditional crop breeding is the same: to improve the characteristics of seed so that the resulting plants have new, desirable traits. The primary difference between the two techniques is how the objective is achieved. Plant breeders have used traditional tools such as hybridization and crossbreeding to improve the quality and yield of their crops with a resulting wide variability in our foods. These traditional techniques resulted in several benefits, such as greatly increased crop production and improved quality of food and feed crops, which has proven beneficial to growers and producers as well as consumers through a reduction of the cost of food for consumers. However, traditional plant breeding techniques do have some limits; only plants from the same or similar species can be interbred. Because of this, the sources for potential desirable traits are finite. In addition, the process of crossbreeding is very time-consuming, at times taking ten to twelve years to achieve the desired goaland complications can arise because all genes of the two "parent" plants are combined together. This means that both the desirable and undesirable traits may be expressed in the new plant. It takes a significant amount of time to remove the unwanted traits by "back crossing" the new plant over many generations to achieve the desired traits. These biotech methods can preserve the unique genetic composition of some crops while allowing the addition or incorporation of specific genetic traits, such as resistance to disease. However, development of transgenic crop varieties still requires a significant investment of time and resources.

The Many Applications of Biotechnology

Since the earliest times, people have been using simple forms of biotechnology to improve their food supply, long before the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick. For example, grapes and grains were modified through fermentation with microorganisms and used to make wine, beer, and leavened bread. Modern biotechnology, which uses the latest molecular biology technology, allows us to more directly modify our foods. Whereas traditional plant breeding mixes tens of thousands of genes, biotechnology allows for the transfer of a single gene, or a few select genes or traits. The most common uses thus far have been the introduction of traits that help farmers simplify crop production, reduce pesticide use in some crops, and increase profitability by reduction of crop losses to weeds, insect damage, or disease.

In general, the early applications of crop biotechnology have been at points in our food supply chain where economic benefit can be gained. The following are examples of modern biotechnology where success has been achieved or is in progress.

Insect resistance. Crop losses from insect pests can cause devastating financial loss for growers and starvation in developing countries. In the United States and Europe, thousands of tons of pesticides are used to control insects. Using modern biotechnology, scientists and farmers have removed the need for the use of some of these chemicals. Insect-protected plants are developed by introducing a gene into a plant that produces a specific protein from a naturally occurring soil organism. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is one of many bacteria naturally present in soil. This bacterium is known to be lethal to certain classes of insects, and only those organisms. The Bt protein produced by the bacterium is the natural insecticide. Growing foods, such as Bt corn, can help eliminate the application of chemical pesticides and reduce the cost of bringing a crop to market. The introduction of insect-protected crops such as Bt cotton has allowed reduced use of chemical pesticides. This suggests that genetically engineered food crops can also be grown with reduced use of pesticides, a development that would be welcomed by the general public.

Herbicide tolerance. Every year, farmers must battle weeds that compete with their crops for water, nutrients, sunlight, and space. Weeds can also harbor insects and disease. Farmers routinely use two or more different chemicals on a crop to remove both grass and broadleaf weeds. In recent years new "broad-spectrum" chemicals have been discovered that control all these weeds and therefore require only one application of one chemical to the crop. To provide crops with a defense against these nonselective herbicides, genes have been added to plants that render the chemicals inactivebut only in the new, herbicide-resistant crop. Many benefits come from these crops, including better and more flexible weed control for farmers, increased use of conservation tillage (involving less working of the soil and thereby decreasing erosion), and promoting the use of herbicides that have a better environmental profile (that is, that are less toxic to nontarget organisms).

Disease resistance. Many viruses, fungi, and bacteria can cause plant diseases, resulting in crop damage and loss. Researchers have had great success in developing crops that are protected from certain types of plant viruses by introducing DNA from the virus into the plant. In essence, the plants are "vaccinated" against specific diseases. Because most plant viruses are spread by insects, farmers can use fewer insecticides and still have healthy crops and high yields.

Drought tolerance and salinity tolerance. As the world population grows and industrial demand for water supplies increases, the amount of water used to irrigate crops will become more expensive or unavailable. Creating plants that can withstand long periods of drought or high salt content in soil and groundwater will help overcome these limitations. Although genetically engineered crops with enhanced drought tolerance are not yet commercially available, significant research advances are pointing the way to creating these in the future.

Food applications. Research into applications of biotechnology to food production covers a broad range of possibilities. Examples of food applications also include increasing the nutrient content of foods where deficiencies are widespread in the population. For example, researchers have successfully increased the amount of iron and beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A in humans) in carrots and "golden rice"a biotech rice developed by the Rockefeller Foundation that may help provide children in developing nations with the vitamin A they need to reduce the risk of vision problems or blindness.

Another example of food biotechnology is crops modified for higher monounsaturated fatty acid levels in the vegetable to make them more "heart-healthy." Efforts are also under way to slow the ripening of some crops, such as bananas, tomatoes, peppers, and tropical fruits, to allow time to ship them from farms to large cities while preserving taste and freshness.

Other possible food applications for which pioneering research is under way include grains and nuts where naturally occurring allergens have been reduced or eliminated. Potatoes with higher starch content also promise to have the added potential to reduce the fat content in fried potato products, such as french fries and potato chips. This is because the starch replaces water in the potatoes, causing less fat to be absorbed into the potato when it is fried.

Edible vaccines. Vaccines that are commonly used today are often costly to produce and require cold storage conditions when shipped from their point of manufacture in the developed world to points of use in the developing world. Research has shown that protein-based vaccines can be designed into edible plants so that simple eating of the material leads to oral immunization. This technology will allow local production of vaccines in developing countries, reduction of vaccine costs, and promotion of global immunization programs to prevent infectious diseases.

Global food needs. The world population has topped six billion people and is predicted to double by 2050. Ensuring an adequate food supply for this booming population is going to be a major challenge in the years to come. Biotechnology can play a critical role in helping to meet the growing need for high-quality food produced in more sustainable ways.

What Are Consumers Saying?

Crops modified by biotechnology (also known as genetically modified or GM crops) have been the subjects of public discussion in recent years. Considerable public discussion may be attributed to the public's interest in the safety and usefulness of new products. Although biotechnology has a strongly supported safety record, some groups and organizations abroad and in the United States have expressed a desire for stronger regulation of biotechnology-derived products than of similar foods derived from older technology. The assessment of the need for new regulation is related to an understanding of the science itself, as was detailed in the sections above; this is a continual process of development.

Consumer acceptance is critical to the success of biotechnology around the world. Attitudes toward biotechnology vary from country to country because of cultural and political differences, in addition to many other influences.

In the United States, the majority of consumers are supportive about the potential benefits biotechnology can bring. Generally, U.S. consumers feel they would like to learn more about the topic, and respond favorably when they are given accurate, science-based information on the subject of food biotechnology.

See also Agriculture since the Industrial Revolution; Agronomy; Crop Improvement; Ecology and Food; Environment; Food Politics: United States; Food Safety; Gene Expression, Nutrient Regulation of; Genetic Engineering; Genetics; Government Agencies; Green Revolution; High-Technology Farming; Inspection; Marketing of Food; Toxins, Unnatural, and Food Safety.


Arntzen, Charles J. "Agricultural Biotechnology." In Nutrition and Agriculture. United Nations Administrative Committee on Coordination, Subcommittee on Nutrition, World Health Organization. September 2000

Borlaug, Norman E. "Feeding a World of 10 Billion People: The Miracle Ahead." Lecture given at De Moutfort University, Leicester, England, May 1997. International Food Information Council (IFIC). "Food Biotechnology Overview." Washington, D.C.: February 1998. Available at

Cho, Mildred, David Magnus, Art Caplan, and Daniel McGee. "Ethical Considerations in Synthesizing a Minimal Genome." Science 286 (10 December 1999): 20872090.

Charles J. Arntzen Susan Pitman Katherine Thrasher

Regulatory Oversight

Three government agencies monitor the development and testing of biotechnology crops: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These agencies work together to ensure that biotechnology foods are safe to eat, safe to grow, and safe for the environment.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): Lead agency in assessing safety for human consumption of plants or foods that have been altered using biotechnology, including foods that have improved nutritional profiles, food quality, or food processing advantages.

U.S. Department of Agriculture: Provides regulatory oversight to ensure that new plant varieties pose no harm to production agriculture or to the environment. USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) governs the field testing of biotechnology crops to determine how transgenic varieties perform relative to conventional varieties, and the balance between risk and reward.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): EPA provides regulatory and safety oversight for new plant varieties, such as insect-protected biotechnology crops. EPA regulates any pesticide that may be present in food to provide a high margin of safety for consumers.

Genetically Modified Organisms: Health and Environmental Concerns

There is really little doubt that, at least in principle, the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can offer many advantages. Genetically modified organisms have included crops that are largely of benefit to farmers and not clearly of broad public value. Plans for development of GMOs include foods that have far greater nutritional and even pharmaceutical benefit; crops that can grow in regions that currently cannot provide enough food for subsistence; and foods that are more desirable in terms of traits that the public wants. The market forces that largely determine which products are developed are complicated, and there are important trade-offs: the traits that may be needed to feed a starving world are different from the traits farmers in the United States want, and both may differ from the characteristics the paying public supports.

Most criticisms of genetic engineering focus on food safety and environmental impacts. What impact will GMOs have on the health of those who eat them? Will some individuals develop allergic reactions? The new technology makes it possible to cross species barriers with impunity. A scare over StarLink corn is instructive of this kind of problem. "Bt corn," a common GMO, includes a gene from Bacillus thuringienis, which produces a pesticide that kills the European corn borer. StarLink is a variety of Bt corn that includes a protein (Cry9C) that does not break down as easily in the body, which increases the risk of allergic reactions in some people (though there are no verified cases of this). StarLink corn was approved for animal feed but not for human consumption. Unfortunately it is difficult if not impossible to keep the food supply for animals and humans separate. The result has been the discovery of small amounts of StarLink corn throughout the food supply. (Of course, there is also the question whether a small trace of Cry9C in a fast-food taco is the greatest health problem involved in such a meal.)

A second set of concerns arises over the environmental impact of GMOs. There are several different concerns. First, there are worries about gene flow. The same genes that may one day make it possible for plants to grow in poor, salty soil or in relatively arid regions could create an ecological nightmare by allowing these crops to spread beyond their normal range as a result of the gene(s) that have been transferred into the crop itself, or if those same genes should be introduced to other plants. This can happen through outcrossing between the GMOs and closely related plants. For example, GM wheat could cross with native grasses in South America to alter the makeup of the ecosystem and potentially create "super weeds," a possibility that has raised concerns in the "Wheat Belt" of the United States and elsewhere. Even in the absence of gene flow, the GMOs themselves could become super weeds (or the animal equivalent) as a result of the traits that make them better suited to new habitats. The environmental trade-off for technology that makes it possible to produce sustainable agriculture or aquaculture in regions where it cannot "naturally" flourish is the significant risk of loss of biodiversity and the unchecked spread of plants or animals into unintended regions. (The argument is made, however, that biotechnology can be used to increase yields on the land that is currently used for agricultural production, allowing nonfarm land to be retained as forests and reserves and thereby conserve biodiversity.)

In addition to these concerns over the ecosystem and the creation of superweeds, there is a worry over the potential impact of some GMOs on nontarget organisms. Cornell University researchers found that pollen from Bt corn could kill the larvae of monarch butterflies that ingested it. This raised the fear that these engineered crops could kill butterflies and other nontarget organisms in addition to the corn borer. The consensus from subsequent field research is that Bt corn does not pose a major threat to monarch butterfly populationsloss of habitat in Mexico, where the butterflies overwinter, is a more serious threat. Nevertheless, the Bt cornbutterfly issue showed that it is not always possible to predict the consequences that may arise from the introduction of these crops.

Genetically engineered microorganisms present even greater environmental and health concerns. It will soon be possible to engineer bacteria and viruses to produce deadly pathogens. This could well open a new era in biological weapons in addition to the environmental problems that could result from the release of organisms into the environment. The environmental assessment of the widespread introduction of engineered microorganisms has only barely begun to receive attention (Cho et al., 1999).

These concerns are exacerbated by some inadequacies in the regulatory framework for GMOs. There is a growing sense that the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency are not sufficiently rigorous or consistent in how they regulate GMOs and that there should be a single set of standards, including a mandatory environmental assessment. The opposition to GMOs in Europe is much more widespread than in the United States, and the single most important factor for the differences between European and American attitudes is the level of confidence in the regulatory institutions that protect the food supply. After "mad cow disease," Europeans do not trust their governments to provide safe food. A similar loss in confidence among U.S. consumers could have a similar effect. In spite of these concerns, however, there have so far been no documented food safety problems resulting from the introduction of GM crops in the mid-1990s and their large-scale consumption by the American public. There have also been no ecological disasters, although the time since their introduction has been too brief for the absence of disaster to be very meaningful. In some crops, notably in Bt cotton, there have been significant reductions in the use of pesticides.

David Magnus with contributions by Peter Goldsbrough

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The term biotechnology refers to the use of scientific techniques, including genetic engineering, to improve or modify plants, animals, and microorganisms . In its most basic forms, biotechnology has been in use for millennia. For example, Middle Easterners who domesticated and bred deer, antelope, and sheep as early as 18,000 b.c.e.; Egyptians who made wine in 4000 b.c.e.; and Louis Pasteur, who developed pasteurization in 1861, all used biotechnology. In recent years, however, food biotechnology has become synonymous with the terms genetically engineered foods and genetically modified organism (GMO).

Traditional biotechnology uses techniques such as crossbreeding , fermentation , and enzymatic treatments to produce desired changes in plants, animals, and foods. Crossbreeding plants or animals involves the selective passage of desirable genes from one generation to another. Microbial fermentation is used in making wine and other alcoholic beverages, yogurt, and many cheeses and breads. Using enzymes as food additives is another traditional form of biotechnology. For example, papain, an enzyme obtained from papaya fruit, is used to tenderize meat and clarify beverages.

Genetic Engineering

The DNA contained in genes determines inherited characteristics. Modifying DNA to remove, add, or alter genetic information is called genetic modification or genetic engineering. In the early 1980s, scientists developed recombinant DNA techniques that allowed them to extract DNA from one species and insert it into another. Refinements in these techniques have allowed identification of specific genes within DNAand the transfer of that particular gene sequence of DNA into another species. For example, the genes responsible for producing insulin in humans have been isolated and inserted into bacteria . The insulin that is then produced by these bacteria, which is identical to human insulin, is then isolated and given to people who have diabetes . Similarly, the genes that produce chymosin, an enzyme that is involved in cheese manufacturing, have also been inserted into bacteria. Now, instead of having to extract chymosin from the stomachs of cows, it is made by bacteria. This type of application of genetic engineering has not been very controversial. However, applications involving the use of plants have been more controversial.

Among the first commercial applications of genetically engineered foods was a tomato in which the gene that produces the enzyme responsible for softening was turned off. The tomato could then be allowed to ripen on the vine without getting too soft to be packed and shipped. As of 2002, over forty food crops had been modified using recombinant DNA technology, including pesticide-resistant soybeans, virus-resistant squash, frost-resistant strawberries, corn and potatoes containing a natural pesticide, and rice containing beta-carotene. Consumer negativity toward biotechnology is increasing, not only in the United States, but also in the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, and France, despite increased consumer knowledge of biotechnology. The principle objections to biotechnology and foods produced using genetic modification are: concern about possible harm to human health (such as allergic responses to a "foreign gene"), possible negative impact to the environment, a general unease about the "unnatural" status of biotechnology, and religious concerns about modification.

Biotechnology in Animals

The most controversial applications of biotechnology involve the use of animals and the transfer of genes from animals to plants. The first animal-based application of biotechnology was the approval of the use of bacterially produced bovine somatotropin (bST) in dairy cows. Bovine somatotropin, a naturally occurring hormone , increases milk production. This application has not been commercially successful, however, primarily because of its expense. The cloning of animals is another potential application of biotechnology. Most experts believe that animal applications of biotechnology will occur slowly because of the social and ethical concerns of consumers.

Concerns about Food Production

Some concerns about the use of biotechnology for food production include possible allergic reactions to the transferred protein . For example, if a gene from Brazil nuts that produces an allergen were transferred to soybeans, an individual who is allergic to Brazil nuts might now also be allergic to soybeans. As a result, companies in the United States that develop genetically engineered foods must demonstrate to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that they did not transfer proteins that could result in food allergies . When, in fact, a company attempted to transfer a gene from Brazil nuts to soybeans, the company's tests revealed that they had transferred a gene for an allergen, and work on the project was halted. In 2000 a brand of taco shells was discovered to contain a variety of genetically engineered corn that had been approved by the FDA for use in animal feed, but not for human consumption. Although several antibiotechnology groups used this situation as an example of potential allergenicity stemming from the use of biotechnology, in this case the protein produced by the genetically modified gene was not an allergen. This incident also demonstrated the difficulties in keeping track of a genetically modified food that looks identical to the unmodified food. Other concerns about the use of recombinant DNA technology include potential losses of biodiversity and negative impacts on other aspects of the environment.

Safety and Labeling

In the United States, the FDA has ruled that foods produced though biotechnology require the same approval process as all other food, and that there is no inherent health risk in the use of biotechnology to develop plant food products. Therefore, no label is required simply to identify foods as products of biotechnology. Manufacturers bear the burden of proof for the safety of the food. To assist them with this, the FDA developed a decision-tree approach that allows food processors to anticipate safety concerns and know when to consult the FDA for guidance. The decision tree focuses on toxicants that are characteristic of each species involved; the potential for transferring food allergens from one food source to another; the concentration and bioavailability of nutrients in the food; and the safety and nutritional value of newly introduced proteins.

Biotechnology and Global Health

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 8 million lives could be saved by 2010 by combating infectious diseases and malnutrition through developments in biotechnology. A study conducted by the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto identified biotechnologies with the greatest potential to improve global health, including the following:

  • Hand-held devices to test for infectious diseases including HIV and malaria. Researchers in Latin America have already made breakthroughs with such devices in combating dengue fever.
  • Genetically engineered vaccines that are cheaper, safer, and more effective in fighting HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, cholera, hepatitis, and other ailments. Edible vaccines could be incorporated into potatoes and other foods.
  • Drug delivery alternatives to needle injections, such as inhalable or powdered drugs.
  • Genetically modified bacteria and plants to clean up contaminated air, water, and soil.
  • Vaccines and microbicides to help prevent sexually transmitted diseases in women.
  • Computerized tools to mine genetic data for indications of how to prevent and cure diseases.
  • Genetically modified foods with greater nutritional value.

Paula Kepos

Labeling of genetically modified foods has sparked additional debate. Labels are required on food produced through biotechnology to inform consumers of any potential health or safety risk. For example, a label is required if a potential allergen is introduced into a food product. A label is also required if a food is transformed so that its nutrient content no longer resembles the original food. For example, so-called golden rice has been genetically engineered to have a higher concentration of beta-carotene than regular rice, and thus it must be included on the label. In response to consumer demands, regulators in England have instituted mandatory labeling laws for all packaged foods and menus containing genetically modified ingredients. Similar but less restrictive laws have been instituted in Japan. In Canada, the policy on labeling has remained similar to that of the United States.

Some consumer advocates maintain that not requiring a label on all genetically modified foods violates consumers' right to make informed food choices, and many producers of certain foods, such as foods containing soy protein, now include the term "non-GMO" on the label to indicate that the product does not contain genetically modified ingredients.

The application of recombinant DNA technology to foods, commonly called biotechnology, may be viewed as an extension of traditional cross-breeding and fermentation techniques. The technology enables scientists to transfer genetic material from one species to another, and may produce food crops and animals that are different than those obtained using traditional techniques. The FDA has established procedures for approval of food products manufactured using recombinant DNA technology that require food producers to demonstrate the safety of their products. The American Dietetic Association, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Organization have each adopted statements that techniques of biotechnology may have the potential to improve the food supply. These organizations and others acknowledge that long-term health and environmental impacts of the technology are not known, and they encourage continual monitoring of potential impacts.

see also Additives and Preservatives; Food Safety; Genetically Modified Foods.

M. Elizabeth Kunkel Barbara H. D. Luccia


Altman, Arie, ed. (1998). Agricultural Biotechnology. New York: Marcel Dekker.

Johnson-Green, Perry (2002). Introduction to Food Biotechnology. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Serageldin, Ismail (1999). "Biotechnology and Food Security in the 21st Century." Science 285:387389.

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biotechnology is unique amongst the three principal technologies for the twenty-first century — information technology, materials science, and biotechnology — in being a sustainable technology based on renewable biological resources. Such natural resources include animals, plants, yeasts, and microorganisms and have formed mankind's nascent food and beverage industry for several millennia. However, the modern era of scientific biotechnology commenced with the elucidation of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953 and the subsequent development of the tools to cleave and resplice genetic material in the early 1970s. Not surprisingly, therefore, the term ‘biotechnology’ is generally considered synonymous with gene splicing and other forms of genetic engineering. In practice, however, biotechnology refers to a library of advanced scientific tools for the manipulation of biological organisms, systems, or components for the production of goods or services in all sectors of human activity.

The early years of the ‘new’ biotechnology focused on the technologies required to clone, overexpress, purify, and administer biopharmaceuticals such as insulin, growth hormone, factor VIII (deficient in haemophilia), and erythropoietin, with some 200 other proteins currently in the pipeline. However, in the future, the most significant breakthroughs in human medicine will result from mapping and understanding the human genome — in elucidating the exact sequence of the billions of nucleotides that constitute the estimated 30 000–40 000 genes that are the collective blueprint for human beings and are responsible for some 10 000 genetic disorders. The Human Genome Project was launched in 1990 as a 15-year, $3 billion international effort to map and sequence all human genes. Innovations in sequencing technology have ensured that the project moved ahead of schedule. With less than 5% of all human genes identified at the start of the project, it has become increasingly clear that each new gene discovery proffers new drugs for the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of human disease. These drugs include therapeutic proteins, diagnostics, gene therapy reagents, and small molecules. A significant proportion of the human genome has been sequenced and many new human disease genes are being characterized. These advances will enable biotechnologists not only to measure disease potential and expand the applications for genomic diagnostics but also to devise fundamental new therapeutic approaches.

Genomics and genetic engineering are also playing a substantial role in the development of agricultural biotechnology. This sector is finally moving out from under the shadow of the biopharmaceutical community and is now competing in terms of publicity and investor attention. This is because $1 billion is considered an attractive market in the biopharmaceutical industry, whilst global agricultural markets can readily top $10 billion and the total end-use value of food, fibre, and biomass is estimated to be over $1500 billion. The addressable market on which value can be added and costs cut is at least 6–7 times that of its pharmaceutical counterpart. Two of the factors that have encouraged biotechnologists to enter the genetically engineered food and plant arena are the desire of consumers for better tasting foods and a preference for products grown using fewer pesticides. Calgene was the first company to market a genetically improved tomato which could be ripened on the vine without softening and thereby result in improved taste and texture. Antisense technology was used to inhibit the enzyme polygalacturonase which degrades pectin in the cell wall. Similarly, laurate Canola is the world's first oilseed crop that has been genetically engineered to modify oil composition. Laurate is the key raw material used in the manufacture of soap, detergent, food, oleochemical, and personal care products. Other examples of transgenic agricultural crops include high stearate and myristate oils, low saturate oils, high solids tomatoes and potatoes, sweet minipeppers, modified lignin in paper pulp trees, pesticide-resistant plants, and biodegradeable plastics.

The early goals in the development of transgenic livestock were the increase of the meat and of the production characteristics of food animals. However, long research and development timelines and low projected profit margins, especially in developed nations where food is relatively inexpensive, have shifted priorities to the production of protein pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals in the milk of transgenic animals. Milk has a high natural protein content and is sequestered in a gland where its proteins exert little direct systemic effect. It provides a renewable production system that is capable of complex and specific ‘post-translational processing’: that is, modifications to the protein that occur after it has been synthesized as a polypeptide (such as conjugation with carbohydrate moieties), which can alter the biological or therapeutic properties of the protein. Such changes cannot easily be accomplished in conventional cell culture systems. As a result, the ‘biopharming’ focus has shifted to the production of human blood plasma proteins and other therapeutic proteins, in ruminants such as cows, sheep, and goats which are easy to milk.

Marine organisms are also capable of producing a variety of polymers, adhesives, and compounds for cosmetics and food preparation. Bioactive natural products are found in organisms that reside in areas which stretch from easily accessible intertidal zones to depths in excess of 1000 m. Collaborations between marine chemists, molecular pharmacologists, and cell biologists have yielded an impressive library of potentially useful cancer, viral, antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, cardiovascular, and CNS drugs.

The pharmaceutical, agrichemical, and speciality chemical industries are increasingly requiring molecules which have distinct left- or right-handed forms, so-called chiral compounds. Whilst chemical and biological techniques for producing single left- or right-handed forms are developing apace, it is apparent that no single approach is likely to dominate. Suppliers and customers alike must continue to draw upon the entire range of chemical, enzymatic, and whole-organism tools that are available to produce chiral compounds. Unfortunately, only 10% of the 25 000 or so enzymes found in nature have been identified and characterized, and, of these, only 25 are produced in large quantities. Despite some duplication in activity among enzymes, there is a need to characterize more in order to exploit their unique specificity and activity. However, barriers to enzyme scale-up include product inhibition and a general reluctance on the part of chemists to use water-based reagents in systems which are traditionally non-aqueous. Consequently, enzymes should be made more user-friendly both for bench chemists exploring novel synthetic strategies and for all stages in pharmaceutical scale-up. However, the biologists' toolbox for catalysis is expanding. For decades, there were only two types of catalyst — metals and enzymes — but since 1986 two new classes of biocatalyst have emerged along with the enzymes, ribozymes, and catalytic antibodies. These novel biocatalysts are prepared both by classical biochemical and immunological methods and by recombinant and phage display technologies. Whilst there are still many catalysts still to be discovered, such biocatalysts will have to exhibit improved performance, stability, turnover numbers, specificity, and product yields.

Biotechnology is also playing a role in ‘clean’ manufacturing. Nevertheless, various types of chemical manufacturing, metal plating, wood preserving, and petroleum refining industries currently generate hazardous wastes, comprising volatile organics, chlorinated and petroleum hydrocarbons, solvents, and heavy metals. Bioremediation with microbial consortia is being investigated as a means of cleaning up hazardous sites. Methods include in situ and ex situ treatment of contaminated soil, groundwater, industrial wastewater, sludges, soil slurries, marine oil spills, and vapour-phase effluvia.

Biotechnology is expected to contribute massively to the global economy, largely through the introduction of recombinant DNA technology to the production of biopharmaceuticals. In the future, biotechnology will concentrate on the complexity and interrelatedness of biology, with such targets as the human genome project; genetic medicine; gene and cell therapy; tissue engineering; vaccines; factors for transcribing DNA into RNA; signal transduction and the control of gene expression; managing ageing at the level of programmed cell death, and genes that control cell division; neurobiotechnology; agri-industrial biotechnology; drug delivery; cell adhesion and communication; and novel diagnostics. Needless to say, and subject to clarification of certain ethical and public acceptance issues, biotechnology is set to make an indelible contribution to human health and welfare well into the foreseeable future.

C. R. Lowe

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Biotechnology, broadly defined, refers to the manipulation of biology or a biological product for some human end. Before recorded history, humans grew selected plants for food and medicines. They bred animals for food, for work, and as pets. The ancient Egyptians learned how to maintain selected yeast cultures, which allowed them to bake and brew with predictable results. These are all examples of biotechnology. In more recent times, however, the term "biotechnology" has mainly been applied to specifically industrial processes that involve the use of biological systems. Today many biotechnology companies use processes that make use of genetically engineered microorganisms.

A Revolution in Biology

Following 1953, when Thomas Watson and Francis Crick published their famous paper on the double helix structure of DNA, a series of independent discoveries were made in chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, and microbiology, which together brought about a revolution in biology and led to the first experiments in genetic engineering in 1973. Because of this revolution, scientists learned to modify living microorganisms in a permanent, predictable way. Bacteria have been made to produce medical products, such as hormones, vaccines, and blood factors, that were formerly not available or available only at great expense or in limited amounts. Crop plants have been developed with increased resistance to disease or insect pests, or with greater tolerance to frost or drought. What has made all these things possible is the collection of biochemical and molecular biological techniques for manipulating genes, which are the basic units of biological inheritance. These are the techniques used in genetic engineering or recombinant DNA technology.

The fusion of traditional industrial microbiology and genetic engineering in the late 1970s led to the development of the modern biotechnology industry. Using recombinant DNA technology, this industry has brought a long and steadily growing list of products into the marketplace. Human insulin produced by genetically engineered bacteria was one of the first of these products. It was followed by human growth hormone; an anti-viral protein called interferon; the immune stimulant called interleukin 2; a tissue plasminogen activator for dissolving blood clots; two blood-clotting factors, labeled VIII and IX, which are administered to hemophiliacs; and many other products.

Vitamin C

The production of certain chemicals has already become an important biotechnological industry. Vitamin C is a prime example. Humans, as well as other primates, guinea pigs, the Indian fruit bat, several species of fish, and a number of insects, all lack a key enzyme that is required to convert a sugar, glucose, into vitamin C.

No single bacterial genus or species is known that will carry out all of the reactions needed to synthesize vitamin C, but there are two (Erwinia species and Corynebacterium genus) that, between them, can perform all but one of the required steps. In 1985 a gene from one of these genus (Corynebacterium ) was introduced into the second organism (Erwinia herbicola ), resulting in a new bacterial form. This engineered organism can be used to produce a precursor to vitamin C that is converted via one chemical reaction into this essential vitamin. The engineering of many other microorganisms is being used to replace complex chemical reactions. For example, amino acids , needed for dietary supplements, are produced on a large scale using genetically modified microorganisms, as are antibiotics.

Laundry Detergents

Another important class of compounds produced by biotechnology is enzymes . These protein catalysts are used widely in both medical and industrial research. Proteases, enzymes that break down proteins, are particularly important in detergents, in tanning hides, in food processing, and in the chemical industry. One of the most significant commercial enzymes of this type is subtilisin, which is produced by a bacterium. Because many stains contain proteins, the manufacturers of laundry detergents include subtilisin in their product. Subtilisin is 274 amino acids long, and one of these, the methionine at position 222, lies right beside the active site of the enzyme. This is the site on the enzyme's surface where the substrate is bound, and where the reaction that is catalyzed by the enzyme takes place. In this instance the substrate is a protein in a stain, and the reaction results in the breaking of a peptide bond in the backbone of the protein. Unfortunately, methionine is an amino acid that is very easily oxidized , and laundry detergents are often used in conjunction with bleach, which is a strong oxidizing agent. When used with bleach, the methionine in subtilisin is oxidized and the enzyme is inactivated, preventing the subtilisin from doing its work of breaking down the proteins present in food stains, blood stains, and the like.

To overcome this problem, genetic engineering techniques were used to isolate the gene for subtilisin, and the small part of the gene that codes for methionine 222 was replaced by chemically synthesized DNA fragments that coded for other amino acids. The experiment was done in such a way that nineteen new subtilisin genes were produced, and every possible amino acid was tried at position 222. Some of the altered genes gave rise to inactive versions of the enzyme, but others resulted in fully functional subtilisin. When these subtilisins were tested for their resistance to oxidation, most were found to be very good (except when cysteine replaced methionine: It too is easily oxidized). So now it is possible to use laundry detergent and bleach at the same time and still remove protein-based stains. This type of gene manipulation, which has been called "protein engineering," has already been used for making beneficial changes in other industrial enzymes, and in proteins used for medical purposes.

Other Examples

Biotechnology companies are continuing to produce new products at an impressive rate. Numerous clinical testing procedures for human disorders such as AIDS and hepatitis and for disease-causing organisms such as those responsible for malaria and Legionnaires' disease (a lung infection caused by the bacterium Legionella pneumophila ), are based on diagnostic testing kits that have been developed by biotechnology companies. Many of these assays make use of recombinant antibodies , while others rely on DNA primers that are used in the polymerase chain reaction to detect DNA sequences present in an infecting organism, but not in the human genome.

Trangenic plants are now grown on millions of acres. Many of these plant species have been engineered to produce a protein, normally synthesized by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which is toxic to a number of agriculturally destructive insect pests but harmless to humans, most other non-insect animals, and many beneficial insects such as bees.

Ethical Issues

Like all industries, the biotechnology industry is subject to rules and regulations. Legal, social, and ethical concerns have been raised by the ability to genetically alter organisms. These have resulted in the establishment of governmental guidelines for the performance of biotechnology research, and specific requirements have been set to control the introduction of recombinant DNA products into the marketplace. General governmental guidelines for biotech research are published on the Internet at Guidelines for plant genetic engineering and biotechnology are available at

see also Agricultural Biotechnology; Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, History of; Cloning Genes; Cloning Organisms; Gene Therapy; Genetic Testing; Genetically Modified Foods; Hemophilia; Polymerase Chain Reaction; Recombinant DNA; Transgenic Animals; Transgenic Microorganisms; Transgenic Plants.

Dennis N. Luck


Glick, Bernard R., and Jack J. Pasternak. Molecular Biotechnology: Principles and Applications of Recombinant DNA. Washington, DC: ASM Press, 1998.

Marx, Jean L. A Revolution in Biotechnology. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Primrose, S. B. Molecular Biotechnology. Boston: Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1991.

Rudolph, Frederick B., and Larry V. McIntire, eds. Biotechnology: Science, Engineering, and Ethical Challenges for the Twenty-first Century. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 1996.

Before Captain James Cook, the famous English sailor and navigator, had his men drink lime juice (which contains vitamin C) during extended sea voyages, many sailors fell ill or died of the vitamin C deficiency known as scurvy.

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Biotechnology research in space is predicated on understanding and exploiting the effects of the unique microgravity environment on chemical and biological systems. The results of these experiments could point the way not only to commercial enterprises in space but also to new research directions for laboratories on Earth. Protein crystallization and cell biology are two areas in which microgravity research is particularly promising.

Protein Crystallization

Researchers are interested in determining the structure of proteins because the twists and folds of these complex molecules provide clues to their specific functions and how they have evolved over time. However, for scientists to study their structures, the molecules must be "held in place" through crystallization. Large, good-quality crystals are valued by structural biologists, but some organic molecules are easier to crystallize than others are. In some cases the resolution of important biological questions awaits the ability to produce adequate crystals for structural analysis.

For more than fifteen years it has been known that with other conditions being equal, protein crystals grown in a microgravity environment are larger than those grown on Earth. However, the impact of this realization has been limited because of the irregular, short-term nature of space shuttle flights and the lack of a permanent laboratory with adequate vibration control.

Facilities aboard the International Space Station (ISS) may be able to address this need. Even if there is only an incremental increase in quality when crystals are produced in orbiting rather than Earth laboratories, that increase may make the difference in terms of being able to determine the structure of some proteins, providing new knowledge of biological mechanisms. An X-ray crystallography facility planned for the ISS would provide robotic equipment not only for growing the crystals but also for initial testing. Only the most promising specimens would be stored in the station's limited freezer space to be brought back to Earth aboard a shuttle.

Cell Biology

Cell biology is another area in which space-based research may produce valuable findings. In this case the key attribute of the microgravity environment is the ability to grow three-dimensional cell cultures that more closely mimic the way the cells would behave in the organism.

When cells are grown, or "cultured," for experiments on Earth, gravity encourages them to spread out in two-dimensional sheets. For most tissues this is not a particularly realistic configuration. As a result, the interactions between the cells and the biological processes within them are different from what would be seen in nature. At a molecular level this is seen as differences in gene expression, the degree to which a particular gene is "turned on" to make a protein that serves a specific function in the organism.

In a microgravity environment it is easier to get the cells to adopt the same three-dimensional form that they have during normal growth and development. This means that the gene expression pattern in the cultured cells is more like the pattern that occurs in nature. In addition, it suggests the possibility of culturing not only realistic three-dimensional tissues but entire organs that could have both research and clinical applications.

Because of the potential importance of this work, scientists have attempted to duplicate the microgravity environment on Earth. They have done this by placing tissue cultures in rotating vessels called bioreactors where the centrifuge effect cancels out the force of gravity.

Some success has been experienced with small cultures when the rotating vessel technique has been used. However, as the cultures grow larger, the vessel must be spun faster and faster to balance out their weight and keep them in suspension. At that point rotational effects such as shear forces damage the cells and cause their behavior to diverge from what is seen in the organism. This is a problem that could be solved if the experiments were done in space.

Technology and Politics

However, in considering the potential for biotechnology in space, it is important to understand the technological and political context. Researchers are making rapid progress in both protein crystallization and three-dimensional tissue culture in laboratories on Earth, generally at significantly lower cost than that associated with space programs. Any perception that coveted research funds are being diverted to space-based programs without adequate justification causes resentment of such programs within the scientific community.

In addition, the difficulties of funding a large, expensive space station over the many years of planning and construction have resulted in numerous changes to the ISS's design, facilities, and staffing. Refrigerator and freezer space, for example, has been reduced, creating a potential problem for biology research. Exacerbating the problem is uncertainty in the schedule on which shuttles will be available to transport specimens. Another change of major concern to scientists contemplating participation in the program is a possible reduction in crew size, at least initially, from the planned complement of ten to a "skeleton crew" of only three.

The reduced crew size drastically limits the ability of astronauts to assist with the research, meaning that the experiments that will be flown must require little to no local human intervention. However, the overall budget instability also has affected hardware development funds so that it is more difficult to provide the advanced automation, monitoring, and ground-based control capabilities that are needed.

There are promising applications for biotechnology in the microgravity of space. However, the extent to which these applications will be realized depends on whether they are seen to accelerate the pace of research or whether the situation is viewed as a "zero-sum game" in which resources are diverted that might be better used on Earth. Finally, it remains to be seen whether the political and economic climate will result in an orbiting platform with the staffing and facilities needed to address real research needs.

see also Crystal Growth (volume 3); International Space Station (volumes 1 and 3); Microgravity (volume 2); Resource Utilization (volume 4); Space Stations of the Future (volume 4).

Sherri Chasin Calvo


National Academy of Sciences. Future Biotechnology Research on the International Space Station. Washington, DC: National Academies, 2001.

Internet Resources

"Success Stories: Biotechnology."NASA Space Product Development. <>.

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The word biotechnology was coined in 1919 by Karl Ereky to apply to the interaction of biology with human technology. Today, it comes to mean a broad range of technologies from genetic engineering (recombinant DNA techniques), to animal breeding and industrial fermentation . Accurately, biotechnology is defined as the integrated use of biochemistry , microbiology, and engineering sciences in order to achieve technological (industrial) application of the capabilities of microorganisms , cultured tissue cells, and parts thereof.

The nature of biotechnology has undergone a dramatic change in the last half century. Modern biotechnology is greatly based on recent developments in molecular biology , especially those in genetic engineering. Organisms from bacteria to cows are being genetically modified to produce pharmaceuticals and foods. Also, new methods of disease gene isolation, analysis, and detection, as well as gene therapy, promise to revolutionize medicine.

In theory, the steps involved in genetic engineering are relatively simple. First, scientists decide the changes to be made in a specific DNA molecule. It is desirable in some cases to alter a human DNA molecule to correct errors that result in a disease such as diabetes. In other cases, researchers might add instructions to a DNA molecule that it does not normally carry: instructions for the manufacture of a chemical such as insulin, for example, in the DNA of bacteria that normally lack the ability to make insulin. Scientists also modify existing DNA to correct errors or add new information. Such methods are now well developed. Finally, scientists look for a way to put the recombinant DNA molecule into the organisms in which it is to function. Once inside the organism, the new DNA molecule give correct instructions to cells in humans to correct genetic disorders, in bacteria (resulting in the production of new chemicals), or in other types of cells for other purposes.

Genetic engineering has resulted in a number of impressive accomplishments. Dozens of products that were once available only from natural sources and in limited amounts are now manufactured in abundance by genetically engineered microorganisms at relatively low cost. Insulin, human growth hormone, tissue plasminogen activator, and alpha interferon are examples. In addition, the first trials with the alteration of human DNA to cure a genetic disorder began in 1991.

Molecular geneticists use molecular cloning techniques on a daily basis to replicate various genetic materials such as gene segments and cells. The process of molecular cloning involves isolating a DNA sequence of interest and obtaining multiple copies of it in an organism that is capable of growth over extended periods. Large quantities of the DNA molecule can then be isolated in pure form for detailed molecular analysis. The ability to generate virtually endless copies (clones) of a particular sequence is the basis of recombinant DNA technology and its application to human and medical genetics.

A technique called positional cloning is used to map the location of a human disease gene. Positional cloning is a relatively new approach to finding genes. A particular DNA marker is linked to the disease if, in general, family members with certain nucleotides at the marker always have the disease, and family members with other nucleotides at the marker do not have the disease. Once a suspected linkage result is confirmed, researchers can then test other markers known to map close to the one found, in an attempt to move closer and closer to the disease gene of interest. The gene can then be cloned if the DNA sequence has the characteristics of a gene and it can be shown that particular mutations in the gene confer disease.

Embryo cloning is another example of genetic engineering. Agricultural scientists are experimenting with embryo cloning processes with animal embryos to improve upon and increase the production of livestock. The first successful attempt at producing live animals by embryo cloning was reported by a research group in Scotland on March 6, 1997.

Although genetic engineering is a very important component of biotechnology, it is not alone. Biotechnology has been used by humans for thousands of years. Some of the oldest manufacturing processes known to humankind make use of biotechnology. Beer, wine, and bread making, for example, all occur because of the process of fermentation. As early as the seventeenth century, bacteria were used to remove copper from its ores. Around 1910, scientists found that bacteria could be used to decompose organic matter in sewage. A method that uses microorganisms to produce glycerol synthetically proved very important in the World War I since glycerol is essential to the manufacture of explosives.

See also Fermentation; Immune complex test; Immunoelectrophoresis; Immunofluorescence; Immunogenetics; Immunologic therapies; Immunological analysis techniques; Immunosuppressant drugs; In vitro and in vivo research

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Biotechnology is the application of biological processes in the development of products. These products may be organisms, cells, parts of a cell, or chemicals for use in medicine, biology, or industry.

History of biotechnology

Biotechnology has been used by humans for thousands of years in the production of beer and wine. In a process called fermentation, microorganisms such as yeasts and bacteria are mixed with natural products that the microorganisms use as food. In winemaking, yeasts live on the sugars found in grape juice. They digest these sugars and produce two new products: alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Early in the twentieth century, scientists used bacteria to break down, or decompose, organic matter in sewage, thus providing a means for dealing efficiently with these materials in solid waste. Microorganisms were also used to produce various substances in the laboratory.


Hybridizationthe production of offspring from two animals or plants of different breeds, varieties, or speciesis a form of biotechnology that does not depend on microorganisms. Farmers long ago learned that they could produce offspring with certain characteristics by carefully selecting the parents. In some cases, entirely new animal forms were created that do not occur in nature. An example is the mule, a hybrid of a horse and a donkey.

Hybridization has also been used for centuries in agriculture. Most of the fruits and vegetables in our diet today have been changed by long decades of plant crossbreeding. Modern methods of hybridization have contributed to the production of new food crops and resulted in a dramatic increase in food production.

Words to Know

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid): A nucleic acid molecule (an organic molecule made of alternating sugar and phosphate groups connected to nitrogen-rich bases) containing genetic information and located in the nucleus of cells.

Hybridization: The production of offspring from two parents (such as plants, animals, or cells) of different breeds, species, or varieties.

Monoclonal antibody: An antibody produced in the laboratory from a single cell formed by the union of a cancer cell with an animal cell.

Recombinant DNA research (rDNA research): A technique for adding new instructions to the DNA of a host cell by combining genes from two different sources.

Discovery of DNA leads to genetic engineering

The discovery of the role of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in living organisms greatly changed the nature of biotechnology in the second half of the twentieth century. DNA, located in the nucleus of cells, is a complex molecule that stores and transmits genetic information. This information provides cells with the directions to carry out vital bodily functions.

With the knowledge of how genetic information is stored and transmitted, scientists have developed the ability to alter DNA, creating new instructions that direct cells to produce new substances or perform new functions. The process of DNA alteration is known as genetic engineering. Genetic engineering often involves combining the DNA from two different organisms, a technique referred to as recombinant DNA research.

There is little doubt that genetic engineering is the best known form of biotechnology today, with animal cloning and the Human Genome Project making headlines in the news. Indeed, it is easy to confuse the two terms. However, they differ in the respect that genetic engineering is only one type of biotechnology.

Monoclonal antibodies

Another development in biotechnology is the discovery of monoclonal antibodies. Monoclonal antibodies are antibodies produced in the laboratory by a single cell. The single cell is formed by the union of two other cellsa cancer cell and an animal cell that makes a particular antibody. The hybrid cell multiplies rapidly, making clones of itself and

producing large quantities of the antibody. (Antibodies are chemicals produced in the body that fight against foreign substances, such as bacteria and viruses.) Monoclonal antibodies are used in research, medical testing, and for the treatment of specific diseases.

[See also Clone and cloning; Endangered species; Fermentation; Genetic engineering; Human Genome Project; Nucleic acid ]

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The term "biotechnology" was coined in 1919 by Hungarian scientist Karl Ereky to mean "any product produced from raw materials with the aid of living organisms." In its broadest sense, biotechnology dates from ancient times. Approximately 6000 B.C.E., the Sumarians and Babylonians discovered the use of yeast in making beer. About 4000 B.C.E., the Egyptians employed yeast to make bread and the Chinese bacteria to make yogurt.

The modern sense of biotechnology dates from the mid-1970s, when molecular biologists developed techniques to isolate, identify, and clone individual genes . These genes could then be manipulated in the test tube, and could be inserted into other organisms by "recombinant technology." The dawn of modern biotechnology dates from 1977 when the biotechnology company Genetech reported the production in bacteria of the first human protein , somatostatin , by recombinant technology. Shortly thereafter, human insulin and human growth hormone (hGH) were also produced by similar techniques.

Biotechnology promises dramatic discoveries in the twenty-first century, particularly in the areas of new drugs, antibiotics, and medicines. Plants and animals are being genetically manipulated ("plant and animal pharms") to produce useful reagents such as antibodies in milk and vaccines in potatoes. A new "green revolution" in biotechnology is taking place to improve food crops. Plants are being developed that produce their own nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides. Others are resistant to herbicides to eradicate weeds and improve crop yield. Rice, the primary foodstuff of one-third of the world's population, is deficient in vitamin A. By the insertion of a gene from a flower into rice, a new strain of "golden rice," rich in vitamin A, promises to alleviate vitamin Adeficient blindness in these populations. On the negative side, biotechnology, unfortunately, is being used to develop biological weapons by increasing the virulence of pathogens or creating new "superbugs."

see also Clone; DNA Sequencing; Gene Therapy; Genomics; Human Genome Project; Polymerase Chain Reaction; Recombinant DNA

Ralph Meyer


Alcamo, I. Edward. DNA Technology: The Awesome Skill, 2nd ed. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2001.

Bud, Robert, and Mark. F. Cantley. The Uses of Life: A History of Biotechnology, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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biotechnology, the use of biological processes, as through the exploitation and manipulation of living organisms or biological systems, in the development or manufacture of a product or in the technological solution to a problem. As such, biotechnology is a general category that has applications in pharmacology, medicine, agriculture, and many other fields.

The techniques of genetic engineering have been used to manipulate the DNA (genetic material; see nucleic acid) of bacteria and other organisms to manufacture biological products such as drugs (insulin, interferon, and growth hormones). A common technique involved in this process in gene splicing, in which a gene that produces a desired product can be inserted into bacterial DNA. Bacteria can then be grown in large quantities and processed to extract the desired substance; specially cultured plant and animal cells can be similarly grown and processed. Hybrids of cancer and antibody-producing cells (hybridomas) have been cloned in the laboratory to mass produce experimental monoclonal antibodies, which are being studied for the treatment of cancer and other diseases. Bacteria have also been altered to break down oil slicks and industrial waste products.

Plants and foods with such desired qualities as prolonged shelf life or increased resistance to diseases and pests have been created through genetic engineering; that is, by inserting DNA from other organisms. Much of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States, for example, are now genetically modified in some way, Livestock have also been genetically altered to produce medically useful substances (see pharming). The field of biotechnology also includes gene therapy, in which attempts are made to insert normal or genetically altered genes into cells to treat genetic disorders and chronic diseases.

See R. W. Old and S. B. Primrose, Principles of Gene Manipulation (5th ed. 1994); J. E. Smith, Biotechnology (3d ed. 1996).

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biotechnology Use of biological processes for medical, industrial, or manufacturing purposes. Humans have long used yeast for brewing and bacteria for products such as cheese and yoghurt. Biotechnology now enjoys a wider application. By growing microorganisms in the laboratory, new drugs and chemicals are produced. Genetic engineering techniques of cloning, splicing, and mixing genes facilitate, for example, the growing of crops outside their normal environment, and vaccines that fight specific diseases. The safety of genetically modified food has been questioned by some. Hormones are also produced, such as insulin for treating diabetes.

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"biotechnology." World Encyclopedia. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

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biotechnology The development of techniques for the application of biological processes to the production of materials of use in medicine and industry. For example, the production of antibiotics, cheese, and wine rely on the activity of various fungi and bacteria. Genetic engineering can modify bacterial cells to synthesize completely new substances, e.g. hormones, vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, etc., or introduce novel traits into plants or animals.

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"biotechnology." A Dictionary of Biology. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

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bi·o·tech·nol·o·gy / ˌbīōtekˈnäləjē/ • n. the exploitation of biological processes for industrial and other purposes, esp. the genetic manipulation of microorganisms for the production of antibiotics, hormones, etc.

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"biotechnology." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

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biotechnology The exploitation of micro-organisms for industrial and other human purposes; the term usually refers particularly to techniques involving genetic manipulation in microorganisms. See GENETIC ENGINEERING.

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"biotechnology." A Dictionary of Plant Sciences. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

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