BIOTECHNOLOGY – A SUNRISE INDUSTRY

EMERGENCE OF BIOTECHNOLOGY INDUSTRY

The science of Biotechnology came into existence in 1960s when scientists unravelled the mystery of RNAs and DNAs basic genetic material, and serious research began in the area of understanding  and ‘mapping’ of human genes. Initially, the term “Biotechnology” (abbreviated as Biotech) was loosely applied to technologies and organisations engaged in mapping the human genes. The main objective of  this stream of science is to improve human health by understanding the functioning of genes and modifying them towards building healthier bodies.

Biotechnology can be defined as the “application of all natural sciences and engineering in the direct or indirect use of living organisms or parts of organisms in the production of goods and services and/ or to improve existing industrial processes”.  In other words, biotechnology can also be defined as the “technology that relies on living organisms’ biological systems”.

Biotechnology is not a single technology but a collection of new technologies bound by a common thread. They all use living cells and the molecules within them to make new products, or improve existing products. Major techniques of biotechnology include genetic engineering, monoclonal antibody technologies drawn from genetics, immunology, biochemistry, microbiology, molecular biology and other life sciences. Biotechnology is finding increasing application in diverse areas.  Today, biotechnology is being used in a wide range of business whose aim is to understand, alter, or direct the function of a wide set of organic cells, including plants, animals and humans.  Modern Biotechnology is now being used to produce drugs, develop new therapies and diagnostics in medicine and grow  better, healthier and tastier foods.  

2  CLASSIFICATION OF BIOTECHNOLOGY

Broadly, biotechnology can be classified into (i) Conventional Biotechnology and (ii) Modern  Biotechnology.
CONVENTIONAL BIOTECHNOLOGY

Conventional Biotechnology refers to the technique that uses living organisms or parts of an organisms to make or modify products, improve plant or animal productivity or to develop micro organisms for specific uses. Natural fermentation process used for brewing, bread-making, cheese making, etc. and other similar processes used for production of antibiotics, enzymes, etc. fall in the category of Conventional Biotechnology.

MODERN BIOTECHNOLOGY

Modern biotechnology relies on the use of cellular processes like recombinant DNA (rDNA), gene transfer, embryo manipulation and its transfer, plant regeneration, tissue culture, monoclonal antibodies and bioprocess engineering, protein engineering and structure based molecular design to solve problems and make products.  Modern biotechnology is also referred to as ‘Gene Technology’. Modern biotechnology is considered as an enabling tool for scientific innovations to improve human, agriculture and environmental conditions worldwide.

APPLICATION BASED CLASSIFICATION

Based on applications, biotechnology can be classified into

a.    Healthcare Biotechnology
b.    Agriculture Biotechnology
c.    Industrial Biotechnology
d.    Environmental Biotechnology.

a. Healthcare Biotechnology

The healthcare/ pharmaceutical sector was the first to reap the benefits of biotechnology. Biotechnology in healthcare uses the human body’s own tools and weapons to fight disease. Biotechnology medicines and therapies use proteins, enzymes, antibodies and other substances naturally produced in the human body to fight infections and diseases, as well as to correct genetic disorders. Biotechnology also uses other living organisms – plant and animal cells, viruses and yeast’s – to assist in the large scale production of medicines for human use.  Thus, biotechnology has made a major impact on discovery and synthesis of new drugs.  Presently,  20% of the world’s pharmaceutical products are biotechnology based. It includes pharmaceuticals derived from fermentation and plant extract processes. The increasing importance of biotechnology in the pharmaceutical industry is reflected in the number of new molecular entities that are currently under development. These pharmaceuticals are expected to represent fifty percent of all the new drugs under test, by the turn of the century. There are four primary areas in health care in which biotechnology  is currently being used : medicines, diagnostics, vaccines and gene therapy.

According to the McKinsey study, Indian pharma industry is poised to grow to an innovation – led US $25 billion industry by 2010 with a market capitalization of almost US $ 150 bn from the current US $ 5 bn generic based drug industry. The Vaccine Market which was a US $ 100 mn market in 2001 is growing at around 20%.  In the biotherapeutics and diagnostics segment, Hep B dominates medical biotech vaccine segment, others include GCSF, EPO, and Interferon alpha 2b. The year 2003 is expected to witness the launch of Human Insulin, Streptokinase, other vaccines and diagnostics. Major players in biopharmaceutical industry are Shanta Biotech, Bharat Biotech, Biocon, Pfizer, Unilever, Dupont, Bayer, Eli Lilly – Ranbaxy.

b.    Agriculture Biotechnology

Agriculture biotechnology (agribio) helps in improving food production to meet the demand of growing world population, while reducing negative environment impacts. Foods produced through Genetically Modified (GM) seed are more nutritious and have high stability under different environment. Research on transgenic crops as with conventional plant breeding and selection by farmers, aims selectively to alter, add or remove a character of choice in a plant, bearing in mind regional needs and opportunities. Transgenic plants having important traits such as pests and herbicide resistance are essential where no inherent resistance has been demonstrated within the local species. There is intense research on development of Genetically Modified Crops having resistance to viral, bacterial and fungal diseases; modification of plant architecture (e.g. height) and development of new varieties (e.g. early or late flowering or seed production); and tolerance to abiotic stresses (e.g. salinity and drought). The benefits from transgenic plants include increased flexibility in crops management, decreased dependency on chemical insecticides and soil disturbance, enhanced yields, easier harvesting and higher proportion of the crop available for trading.

Besides GM Crops, agribio sector also includes Biopesticides, Biofertilizers and plant extraction. Biopesticide products are based on natural agents like microorganisms and fatty acid compounds. They are toxic only to the targeted pests and do not harm humans, animals, fish, birds and beneficial insects. Besides, as they act in unique ways, biopesticides can control pest population that has developed tolerance to chemical pesticides.

Plant extracts are plant-derived materials or preparations that contain raw or processed ingredients from plants and have medicinal/ aromatic/ nutritive value. Often, these have commercial applications.  The sector is being driven by the rising desire to use ‘Natural’ products and increasing awareness about the side effects of chemical based products.

India being the second largest food producer after China offers a huge market for agribiotech products. This, combined with excellent scientific infrastructure in agriculture, rich biodiversity and skilled and low cost human-power, make India a force to reckon with. Transgenics of rice, brassica, moonbean, pigeonpea, cotton, tomato, and some vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower etc. are expected to complete field assessment and some of these would be ready for large scale production by 2005. More protein rich wheat with a higher lysine content is likely to be introduced in the farmer’s field by 2003-2005.   Neutraceuticals market has grown to INR25000 – 30000 mn (US $ 532 – 638 mn). Genetically engineered seed market segment has grabbed almost fifty per cent of total seed market worth US $ 500 mn in 2001. Marine resource development and aqua culture also hold a great potential for India as its coastline covers 8000 km including Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshwadeep.

c.    Industrial Biotech

Industrial biotechnology involves use of microorganisms and their enzyme preparation as biocatalysts to perform complex fermentation process or chiral bioconversion reactions, yielding a wide range of bulk and fine chemicals, food, agro and health sector products. It is anticipated that industrial biotechnology will play a similar role for industrial development in the 21st century as chemistry has in the twentieth century. The biocatalyst approach can be leveraged from living systems and transferred to variety of manufacturing processes. Enzymes such as lipases, proteases, cellulases and amylases can be substituted for both noxious and high temperature, high- energy chemicals. This approach can be applied to a wide range of manufacturing areas such as grain processing, production of detergents, starches and textiles. Enterprises involved in industrial biotechnology are constantly striving to discover and develop high value enzymes and bioactive compounds that will enhance current industrial processes. This segment is expected to show growth in line with overall growth of the Biotech sector.

d.    Environmental Biotechnology

Environmental biotechnology implies application of biotechnology to the management of environmental problems, including waste treatment and pollution control and their integration with non-biological technologies. This sector encompasses environmental monitoring, restoration of environmental quality, resource/ residue/ waste recovery/ utilization/ treatment through application of rDNA technology, substitution of non-renewable resources by renewable ones, stain improvement for degradation of  highly toxic pollutants with the production of chemicals, global changes like global warming and biological diversity.

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