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Biotechnology: Definition, Application and Challenges

Biotechnology UPSC

What is biotechnology?

  • Biotechnology definition: Biotechnology means the use of living organisms or biological processes for the purpose of developing useful agricultural, industrial, or medical products.
  • Biotechnology generally involves techniques, such as genetic engineering, that involve the modification of genes.


History of biotechnology

  • Genetic engineering started developing in the 1970s. Due to this reason, research in biotechnology developed rapidly because of the new possibility to make changes in the organisms’ DNA or their genetic material.
  • Early companies began by manufacturing genetically engineered substances primarily for medical and environmental uses.
  • For more than a decade, the biotechnology industry revolved around recombinant DNA technology, or genetic engineering.
  • At the initial stage, biotechnology investors and researchers were sceptical about whether the courts would permit them to acquire patents on organisms.
  • In 1980, however, the U.S. Supreme Court, resolved the matter by ruling that “a live human-made microorganism is patentable subject matter.”
  • This ruling generated a wave of new biotechnology firms.
  • In 1982, recombinant insulin became the first product made through genetic engineering to secure approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
  • Since then, dozens of genetically engineered protein medications have been commercialized around the world.


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Biotechnology applications

Biotechnology in medicine

  • The use of biotechnology in the field of medicine is also known as ‘red’ biotechnology.
  • Medical areas form a major area in biotechnology.
  • It is the field in which most of the research is taking. It, however, is also the area that raises the highest number of ethical and legal issues.
  • The scope of biotechnology in medicine is to utilize techniques in living systems to produce therapeutic proteins, which are usually called recombinant proteins.
  • The second major field of red biotechnology is gene therapy, which deals with the diagnosis and treatment of genetic diseases and some other diseases such as cancer.


Industrial biotechnology

  • At present, various pharmaceutical drugs and chemicals such as lactic acid, glycerine, etc, are being produced by genetic engineering for better quality and quantity.
  • The crop’s sugar can be fermented to acid, which can then be used as an intermediate to produce other chemical feedstocks for various products.
  • Biotechnology has also provided with a very efficient and economical technique for the production of a variety of biochemicals. Example: immobilized enzymes.

जैव प्रौद्योगिकी: परिभाषा, अनुप्रयोग एवं चुनौतियां

Biotechnology and the environment

  • Environmental problems like pollution control, natural resources depletion for non-renewable energy, conservation of biodiversity, among others, are being dealt with using biotechnology.
  • Example: Bacteria are being utilized for the detoxification of industrial effluents, to combat oil spills, for treatment of sewage and for biogas production.
  • Also, biopesticides offer a safer alternative to chemical pesticides for the control of insects, pests and diseases.


Biotechnology and agriculture

  • Biotechnology has provided techniques for the creation of crops that possess anti-pest characteristics naturally, making them very resistant to pests.
  • Biotechnology has made the choice of animals and plants with desirable traits real.
  • Desirable characteristics included larger animals, animals more resistant to disease, among others.
  • Example: In flower production where traits such as color and smell potency are enhanced.


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Biotechnology challenges

  • High risk: The stocks of biotech firms are mostly volatile because there is high probability that the drugs would fail to make it past the preliminary stage of drug development. And, even though the company stills take the risk, it is not clear how well it will be received in the market.
  • Affordability: The soaring cost of healthcare, in particular, the cost of drugs has always been a matter of debate around the world. These concerns will likely get more heated when the value of exorbitant biotech treatments for serious conditions are debated.
  • Privacy: Protecting patient privacy is becoming an increasing concern due to the latest advances in technology that’s making it possible to decipher human genome. It’s highly possible that compromising information on a patient’s future health will gradually become available, which can lead to massive problems.
  • Societal concerns: The development in genomics and techniques for creating artificial genes present serious threats to humans and the environment in general.
  • Bioterrorism: Biotechnology could also give way to bioterrorism, which is the intentional release of viruses, bacteria, or other germs that can sicken or kill people, livestock, or crops.


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