Biotechnology is the use of modern technologies that involve the manipulation and application of biological system to produce better products or carry out certain prosesses that can improve the health and well-being of mankind and the environment as well. There are a few basic disciplines that contribute to the development of biotechnology which are genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology and many more. Biotechnology is widely applied in area such as medical, industrial processes, agriculture and food production. This discussion will be empahizing on the last two area, agriculture and food production. To be specific, enefits and risks of biotechnology in these areas will be discussed in this discussion. Several method or principles of how biotechnology is applied will be explained too.
Rapid development of biological science and technology has brought the world into a new era of biotechnology. One of the most important characteristics of biotechnology era is the wide application of genetic engineering which also referred to as genetic modification. This technology has been made possible with the discovery of DNA by scientists over the past decades. With this technology, scientists can improve plant, animal and microorganisms species for human benefits. This technique is fully utilized in agriculture sector. In traditional biotechnology, farmers and breeders cross-bred plants and animals to come up with organism that have desired traits. Today, farmers can insert the desired traits in form of genes to produced genetically modified organism (GMO). Pest resistance and icnrease crop yield are among of the traits that chosen by farmers to have in plant.
Modern food biotechnology increases the speed and precision with which scientist can improve food traits and production practices. For centuries prior to the development of biotechnology, farmers have spent generations crossbreeding plants or animals to obtain the specific beneficial traits they were looking for and avoid the traits they did not want. Today, food biotechnology utilizes the knowledge of plant science and genetics to move further beyond traditional bioteechnology. Through the use of modern biotechnology, scientists can move gene for valuable traits from one plant to another. This process results in an economical and environmental benefit that is passed on to the farmer and consumer
However, every good thing must come with a dark side of it. Despite of the technology advancement, it also comes with risks that can harm our environment and us.
Reducing Pesticide Dependence
Figure 1 Mode of action by Bacillus thuringiensis
Biotechnology promised a better environment for human to live in by reducing pesticide dependence. With the capability of manipulating plant genome, scientist can insert desired gene inside the plant’s genome. Desired gene here refers to gene that capable of transforming the plant into resisntant agaisnt pest. This has been shown with the success formation of Bt crop.
Bacillus thuringiensis is a Gram-positive bacterium, capable of producing crystals of proteinaceous endotoxic called crystal proteins or Cry proteins which encoded by cry genes In most strains of Bacillus thuringiensis, the cry genes are found within the plasmid. Cry toxins act specificly against species including moths, butterflies, flies and mosquitoes, several beetles, and nematodes. When insects ingest cry toxins, the alkaline pH of their digestive tract causes the toxin become activated. It becomes inserted into the insect’s gut cell membranes forming a pore resulting in swelling, cell lysis and eventually killing the insect.
Since the genes producing have been identified, scientist isolated and inserted the genes into crop’s genome, usually in corn and cotton, with hope that the cry genes will be expressed and kill pest that feed on the crop. When insect feed on the plant, the insect eventually perish. With the toxin act only on specific type of species and with little or no effect of humans, wildlife, pollinators and most other beneficial insects too, Bt crop has been accepted worldwide. Therefore, the usage of chemical pesticide is avoided, thus less pesticide residues on foods and reduced pesticided leaching into groundwater.
Foods are engineered to prevent disease
Figure 3 Golden Rice formation
Golden rice is a genetically modified plant developed to contain more beta-carotene in the grains, seen as a viable method of alleviating vitamin-A deficiency particularly in developing countries. Genetically engineered Vitamin A rice has been proclaimed as a miracle cure for blindness. In its current form, Golden Rice contains 35 micrograms of beta-carotene per gram. Three genes taken from a daffodil flower and a bacterium inserted into a rice strain to produce yellow rice with high levels of beta-carotene, which is converted to Vitamin A within the body. For example, beta-carotene is an important precursor for vitamin A. Beta carotene plays two roles in the body where it can be converted into vitamin A (retinol) if the body demands for it. If the body has enough vitamin A, instead of being converted, beta carotene acts as an antioxidant which protects cells from damage caused by harmful free radicals.
Another example is the incorporation of DNA fragment encoding hepatitis B virus (HBV) surface antigen into lettuce (Lactuca sativa L.) cv. Burpee Bipp. Basically, vaccination is a biological preparation that improves immunity against a particular disease. A vaccine is made from weakened disease-causing microorganism which aimed to stimulate the body to recognize the foreign agent, destroy it and “remember” any future harm of the same infectious agent. HBV cause acute and chronic hepatitis. HBV DNA was found in most of the newborns from hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAG)-positive mothers. Compared to injection-based vaccination, oral or intranasal administration of vaccines is much more economical and feasible global vaccination programme.
Potential Gene Escape and Superweeds
There is a belief among some opponents of genetic engineering technology that transgenic crops might cross-pollinate with related weeds, possibly resulting in “superweeds” that become more difficult to control. One concern is that pollen transfer from glyphosate-resistance crops to related weeds can confer resistance to glyphosate. While the chance of this happening, although extremely small, is not inconceivable, resistance to a specific herbicide does not mean that the palnt is resistant to other herbicibes, so affected weeds could still be controlled with other products.
Some people are worried that genetic engineering could conceivably improve a plant’s ability to “escape” into the wild and produce ecologicaal imbalances or disasters. The fear becomes reality accoding to news reported by The Guardian dated on 25 July 2005. The environmental correspondent reported that cross-fertilisation between gene modified oilseed rape, a brassica and a distantly related plant, charlock, producing new form of charlock. Although it has been discounted as virtually impossible by scientists with the environment department, the new form of charlock was growing among many other in a field which had been used to grow genetic modified rape. When scientists treated it with lethal herbicide, it showed no ill-effects.
The five scientists from the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, the government research station at Winfirth in Dorset, placed their findings and claimed that “the frequency of such an event, which is the cross-fertilisation of charlock, in the field is likely to be very low”. We have to keep in mind that, although the probability is low, it has been proved that it is possible. Dr Brian Johnson, an ecological geneticist and member of government’s specialist scientifc group which assessed the farm trials, has no doubt of the significance. He stated that “you only need one event in several million. As soon as it has taken place, the new plant has a huge selective advantage. That plant will multiply rapidly”
Allergens and Toxins
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been linked to thousands of toxic or allergic-type reactions, thousands of sick, sterile, and dead livestock, and also damage to virtually every organ and system studied in lab animals. Imagine all the side effects of the genetically modified food caused to lab animals will eventually take its toll to the human body.
Scientists are concerned about the possibility of inserted genes spontaneously transferring into the DNA of bacteria inside our digestive tract. They were particularly alarmed at the possibility of antibiotic resistant marker (ARM) genes transferring. ARM genes are employed during gene insertion to help scientists identify which cell successfully integrated the foreign gene. These ARM genes, however, remain in the cell and are cloned into the DNA of all GM plants produced from that cell. Hence, ARM genes would be a serious health hazard due to the possibility of that they might transfer to bacteria and create super diseases, untreatable with antibiotics.
One example of GM food that has high risk is the FlavrSavr™ tomato, which showed evidence of presence of toxins. From past studies using these tomatoes as main diet for 20 female rats, seven rats have developed stomach lesions. According to Pusztai, a scientist, the type of stomach lesions linked to the tomatoes could lead to life-endangering haemorrhage, particularly in the elderly who use aspirin to prevent blood clot. Dr Pusztai believes that the digestive tract, which is the first and largest point of contact with food, can reveal various reactions to toxins and should the first target of GM food risk assessment. However, the studies on FlavrSavr™ never looked pass the stomach to the intestines.
Since GM foods are not properly tested before they enter the market, consumers are the guinea pigs. But this does not even qualify as an experiment. There are neither controls nor monitoring. Given the mounting evidence of harm, it is likely that GM foods are contributing to the deterioration in countries where it is consumed. Without post-marketing surveillance, the chances of tracing health problems to GM food are low. The incidence of a disease would have to increase dramatically before it is noticed, meaning that millions may have to get sick before a change is investigated.