Can you imagine walking through a forest illuminated by trees that glow in the dark without consuming electricity? Or that, if you ever needed it, your doctor could replicate and print your organs on a 3D printer to save your life. And perhaps, the greatest irony would be found in the fact that certain organisms despised by humanity due to their danger, such as viruses, ended up becoming our allies to generate energy more efficiently. All these facts could cease to be part of fiction thanks to biotechnology.
What is biotechnology?
Biotechnology is the branch of science based on using natural biological processes that occur in living organisms to develop products and services that benefit humanity. It is a tool that allows the manipulation of living organisms, molecules, and cells to create valuable products and services in various industries.
It is a relatively new science compared to other scientific disciplines, although humans have been using biotechnology techniques unconsciously for thousands of years. For example, the fermentation of foods and beverages, such as bread, beer, and wine, has been used for over 7,000 years. Plant and animal selection and selective breeding techniques have also been used for centuries to obtain more resistant or productive varieties.
However, in the 20th century, biotechnology experienced a breakthrough with the discovery of DNA and its molecular structure. Since then, increasingly precise and sophisticated techniques, such as genetic manipulation and molecular biology, have been developed. Biotechnology benefits society and is used in various fields, such as agriculture, the food industry, medicine, energy, and many other areas.
Today, two main approaches to biotechnology can be distinguished: the approach based on utilizing natural biological processes and the system based on genetic engineering.
Designing the future with biotechnology: surprising applications of biotechnology in everyday life
Some examples of biotechnology, which we can find daily, are the production of fermented foods. The use of microorganisms, such as bacteria and yeasts, to ferment foods that give rise to cheese, yogurt, or bread is the result of the biological approach of biotechnology.
Like the production of biofuels such as bioethanol or microorganisms used to degrade toxic substances from the soil and water, even tissue culture techniques produce certain bioactive compounds in plants that are later used in medicines.
Within this approach is also the 3D printing of human organs, which has become one of the most promising research areas in biotechnology. 3D printing organs involves creating a three-dimensional structure from human cells using 3D printing technology. Researchers can 3D print cells and systems using biocompatible materials and biomaterials. In this way, the printed tissues could be used to repair damaged tissue and ultimately replace entire organs.
On the other hand, when we refer to the approach based on genetic engineering, we would be referring to techniques based on the direct manipulation of the genetic material of organisms to modify their characteristics and develop new products and services. A typical example would be the development of GM crops resistant to pests and diseases, thus reducing the need for pesticides or more nutritious and can help combat malnutrition.
Also, gene editing techniques are used in the medical field to correct mutations in patients’ DNA and treat diseases such as sickle cell anemia, muscular dystrophy, and other ailments. Within this same scope, mammalian cells or microorganisms can be modified to produce human proteins in large quantities for use in drugs and therapies.
Even in the telecommunications sector, advances in biotechnology have enabled the production of higher quality and purer materials used in manufacturing fiber optics. Even on our screens!
It is known that certain microbes can produce conductive materials, such as graphene, which are used in the manufacture of electronic components such as touch screens and solar panels.
And as we mentioned above, scientists are working on creating trees that glow in the dark thanks to the incorporation of bioluminescent genes from jellyfish and fireflies. These illuminated plants can emit constant light for several weeks without needing an external power source. These trees could be used to illuminate streets and parks without consuming electricity. While more research is still required, bioluminescent trees may be a sustainable solution for night lighting.
Biotechnology has dramatically impacted our society for many years, improving people’s quality of life and helping to solve critical environmental and health problems. In addition, biotechnology has enormous potential to boost economic growth, as it is a constantly evolving field that offers many employment and investment opportunities.
That is why it is essential to continue investing in research and development, to regulate and establish ethical standards for its use, to bet on new technologies to be able to continue advancing in this area, and for collaboration between different sectors, such as industry, R&D, education, among others to take advantage of its full potential.
Biotechnology is expected to play a fundamental role in solving the most urgent global challenges, such as the climate crisis, food security, and the aging of the population, and in the development of the digital economy since it will allow the creation of products and innovative services in sectors such as health, energy, and telecommunications.
Who knows, and maybe in a few years, we will find ourselves walking among bioluminescent trees thanks to the fact that a printed organ in a hospital room has saved our lives.