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Biotechnology: Impact On...


Image of Chart Showing Percentage of Biotechnology Firms by Application

Health Careers

Human insulin for the treatment of diabetes, one of the first genetically engineered products to become commercially available, was marketed in 1982. Since then, biotechnologists have been working to develop new ways for health care professionals to detect and fight disease.

·         Detecting and Treating Hereditary Diseases

   Many diseases, including some types of anemia, cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease, and some blood disorders, are the result of a defective gene that parents pass to their children.

   Biotechnologists are working to identify and locate where defects occur in genes that are related to hereditary diseases. Once the correct genetic code is known, health care professionals hope, in the future, to be able to replace the missing or defective genes to make the individual healthy.

   Currently, prospective parents can be screened for such genetic defects and counseled about the likelihood of their children being affected.

   Fetuses are being screened for genetic disorders before they are born and, again, genetic counselors play an important role in informing parents concerning the test results. Genetic counselors prepare parents for the birth and early medical treatment of a child with a genetic disorder.

·         Heart Disease

 Illustration of a Human Heart  Heart attacks occur when a blood clot enters one of the coronary arteries and cuts off blood flow to a portion of the heart. If the artery is not reopened quickly, severe damage to the heart can occur.

   Doctors can now prescribe a genetically engineered drug called tissue plasminogen activator (TPA) that travels to the blood clot and breaks it up within minutes, restoring blood flow to the heart and lessening the chance of permanent damage.

·         Cancer

   Medical professionals are using biotechnology to treat cancer in several ways. Genetically engineered proteins called lymphokines seem to work with the body's immune system to attack cancer cells and growth inhibitor proteins seem to slow the reproduction of cancer cells. Highly specific and purified antibodies can be loaded with poisons that locate and destroy cancer cells.

·         AIDS

   Genetic engineering has produced several substances that show promise in the treatment of AIDS. These substances stimulate the body's own immune system to fight the disease.

·         Other Diseases

   Many other diseases can be treated with genetically engineered products. Doctors can use a genetically engineered vaccine to treat human hepatitis B or a growth hormone to help children with dwarfism.

   Other treatments developed through genetic engineering techniques include a protein to control blood clotting in hemophiliacs, a hormone that stimulates red blood cell production to fight anemia, and antibodies that discourage organ rejection by transplant patients.


DNA Strand: Split and Replication

Illustration of a DNA Strand

Law Enforcement

Biotechnology has provided law enforcement professionals with another way of placing a suspect at the scene of a crime. This area of study, called forensic biotechnology, uses a method called DNA fingerprinting. This method is based on the fact that each individual's DNA is highly unlikely to be identical to any other person's DNA (unless he or she has an identical twin).

Illustration of Handcuffs

By examining traces of tissue, hair, tooth pulp, blood, or other body fluids left at the scene of a crime, a suspect can be linked to a crime location with great accuracy. Many states are now accepting DNA fingerprinting results as admissible evidence in criminal and civil trials.

Waste Management

As the world's population grows, so does the problem of waste disposal. Biotechnology is helping waste management experts in several ways.

Microorganisms, like bacteria and microbes, can easily adapt to different environments and live off their surroundings. Biotechnologists have found bacteria in solid waste sites that can break down (degrade) various kinds of waste for their own use. Recombinant DNA techniques can enhance these capabilities, and new strains of waste degraders could be developed. Biotechnology can also be used to improve the enzymes and microorganisms used in the treatment of wastewater to make the process cheaper and more efficient.


Training in biotechnology is an advantage for science teachers. Elementary school teachers through college professors are including units on biotechnology in their science curriculums for a very good reason. Biotechnology's impact on human health, the food industry, and the other areas discussed in this brochure means that everyone will have to make decisions about the use of biotechnology products.

Educational opportunities are also being extended to those who had passed through the educational system long before biotechnology arrived on the scene.  Extension professionals from public universities, leaders of farmer groups, and political and environmental organizations are all involved in educating the public about biotechnology products so that informed decisions can be made about their development and use.

Veterinary Medicine, Animal Science, and Livestock Production

Image of Genetically Modified Mice

Mice genetically engineered to express green fluorescent protein under UV light

Veterinarians and professionals in animal science are using biotechnology discoveries to improve animal health and production. Genetically engineered vaccines, monoclonal antibody technology, and growth hormones are three developments that are making this possible. Questions concerning food safety, economic impacts, and animal health issues have been raised by those opposing the use of growth hormones and have made their use controversial.

·         Vaccines

   Most vaccines are made from viruses or bacteria that have been weakened or killed. However, since the live virus or bacteria is often included in these vaccines, they are not without side effects. An animal could become sick from the vaccine. Recombinant DNA technology allows the production of synthetic vaccines that do not have this risk. Recombinant DNA vaccines have been developed for swine and cattle diarrhea and research on other vaccines is continuing.

·         Monoclonal Antibodies

   Antibodies are produced naturally by animals when invaded by a disease-causing organism. Each type of antibody is very specific-it recognizes and attacks only one particular disease organism. Monoclonal antibody technology allows biotechnologists to produce large amounts of purified antibodies for use in the development of vaccines.

   Antibodies can also be used to diagnose illnesses and can detect drugs, viral and bacterial products, and other substances. For example, home pregnancy test kits use antibodies to detect the presence of a certain hormone in the urine.

·         Growth Hormones

   Several biotechnology companies are seeking approval by the federal government of genetically engineered proteins that improve meat and milk production in cattle or pigs. Bovine somatotropin (bST) for cattle and porcine somatotropin (pST) for pigs could impact the life cycle of farm animals by increasing their rate of growth and milk production and producing leaner carcasses.

Agriculture and Plant Science

Image of a PlantFarmers and other agricultural professionals are being faced with decisions about the use of biotechnology products in their operations.

In addition to animal health products and growth hormones that are available for livestock production, a host of crop-production products are or soon will be on the market. Scientists are exploring the genetic modification of food crops to achieve desirable characteristics like high yield, increased protein or oil production, disease resistance, or pest resistance.

·         Yield

   Crop yields are controlled not by one gene, but by many genes acting together. Scientists are working to identify these genes and their contribution to yield so crops can be genetically modified to produce more.

·         Protein and Oil Content of Seeds

   By modifying the genes that control the accumulation of protein and oil in seeds like corn and soybeans, biotechnology researchers hope to develop more nutritious crops or crops that produce modified oils for food or industrial uses. For example, by changing the kinds or amounts of fatty acids stored in soybeans, new oils can be developed.

·         Environmental Conditions

   Most crops do not grow well in dry, salty, or alkaline soils. Most cannot withstand heavy frosts or extreme temperature changes.

   Biotechnologists are trying to genetically engineer crops that will grow well in the poorest food-producing areas of the world where these conditions are often present.

·         Disease and Pest Resistance

   Genes for disease or pest resistance have been identified for several crops. If crops can be genetically modified to include a resistanceresistant gene picture gene that makes them undesirable to pests, the amount of chemical pesticide needed could be reduced-a less expensive and more environmentally-friendly option.

   Crops that "tolerate" herbicides to which they are normally sensitive are now on the market. Used properly, the insertion of a herbicide resistance gene into crops can allow the farmer more choices in selecting a herbicide. There is also the opportunity to develop crops that are tolerant of herbicides that are less damaging to the environment than ones used now.

Energy Production

Those involved in energy industries are finding that living organisms modified by recombinant DNA technologies can improve energy production and use.

·         Mining and Oil Production

   Ore-containing rock is often mixed with minerals that must be separated from the rock by a heat process called smelting. Some microorganisms can dissolve and absorb the minerals, lessening the need for smelting. Other bacteria can force oil out of rocks where conventional drilling is not possible.

·         Biomass Energy

   The production of energy from biomass, especially waste plant materials like wood chips or corn stalks, also benefits from biotechnology. Microorganisms can produce enzymes that degrade the plant materials, making them useful in energy production.

Another research area is the development of genetically engineered trees like poplars that are fast-growing and resistant to disease. These trees could be a renewable resource that can be harvested and burned to power farms or small industries.

Pie Chart of Renewable Energy Resources

Expected structure of renewable energy production in 2020

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