The Benefits and Dangerous Risks of Biotechnology – An Overview

Biotechnology has proven to be existing long before the dawn of technology, in various capacities. It is only when COVID struck, that the common man’s attention shifted to this field. One could assume biotechnology to be fairly recent, much like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Data Science. However, this science is ancient. Without knowing or having any understanding of the principles and processes included, it was successfully being carried out thousands of years ago; take the production of bread, wine, cheese, and even selective breeding of animals as a reference to the past. And like anything that man experiments with, biotechnology comes with its benefits and risks.

Of course, fast forward to current times, the technology has since long been refined and updated with many successful applications and results to witness in our daily lives. However, biotechnology has its set of risks included that do prove to be worrisome.

First, let’s shed some light on the history of biotechnology and the various ways it was being applied without any knowledge of the definite science behind the results.

Brief History of Biotechnology

A Hungarian agricultural engineer, Karl Ereky, coined the term ‘Biotechnology’ in 1919. Before that period, the field itself was nameless.

Although the term denotes the cohesiveness of technology and biology alone, the discipline has many facets perfectly placed by humans for the betterment of mankind. From plant cultivation, cheese production, to animal husbandry, the applications have been under practice for many years dating as back as some 5000 years.

Some of the areas where biotechnology processes were applied in the past includes:

  • Bread Making – 3,000 BC
  • Beer making – 3,000 BC
  • Alcoholic Beverages – Prehistoric
  • Elaboration of Vinegar – 14th Century
  • Yeast Cell Description by Leeuwenhoek – 1689
  • Fermentation Properties of Yeast Discovery by Erxleben – 1818

There are traditional applications of biotechnology as well that we also observed existing in the bygone days. An example to perfectly explain this is composting; which means increasing the fertility of the soil through the decomposition of organic matter. Today, with the dire need for carbon footprint reduction, reduction of landfill waste, limiting chemical fertilizers, and much more, organic composting has become one of the top priorities in order for this earth to heal and recover.

Consider the above applications to be the benefits among the benefits and risks we are to discuss. Now that you are aware of the past applications of biotechnology, let’s discuss the modern-day advances that show the progression of biotechnology over the years until today.

Modern Day Biotechnology

Modern Biotech
Via GRID-Arendal

With the advances in genetics and molecular biology in recent years, the field of biotech has advanced to the acknowledgment of ‘Modern Science’. This has also increased searches for ‘what is biotechnology?’ in recent years as many people have started to take an interest.

More so, the year of COVID has truly shined the importance and necessity of biotech in the world. Considering how the biotech companies are stepping forward in their bid to respond to COVID with vaccines and anti-viral medication. As they have in the past for Influenza, Zika Virus, and the likes.

Modern biotechnology, on the other hand, doesn’t deny its past but has refined and evolved through integration with its modern techniques. Hence, today we witness a wide range of products geared towards the improvement of human lives. Just to start with, we have remarkable advancements in genetic engineering techniques. The mindboggling ability to manipulate basic gene information for controlled and favorable outcomes has opened pathways to an exponential increase in the number of technology companies dealing in Recombinant DNA.

Furthermore, biotechnology is not limited to recombinant DNA techniques. But its applications encompass many fields and organizations that have been since altered with these techniques in order to obtain products that are high in value.

If we were to list down the fields of biotechnology, then they include:

  • Recombinant DNA
  • Biotechnological Process Engineering
  • Biocatalysts
  • Fermentations
  • Cultivation of Plant Tissues
  • Bioremediation; the treatment and reuse of waste products
  • Culture of Mammalian Cells

As for the current tools of biotechnology; they are as follows:

  • DNA Sequencing
  • Recombinant DNA
  • DNA Synthesis
  • Genome Editing

So, keeping all the above-given information in perspective, it may look like biotechnology truly is the modern-day solution to many of the biological errors and threats to living organisms. There are a few risks involved, no matter how promising biotechnology is.

Risks of Biotechnology

Along with the progression of biotechnology, the research also proves to highlight and raise questions on the looming consequences and risks that come alongside biotech’s advances. Evidently, since biotech concerned with the genetic and cellular makeup of the living organism – the risks are vast and dangerous – as compared to other scientific fields.

In biotechnology, you are dealing with microbes that are tiny and which is why difficult to detect. Similarly, the engineered cells could multiply and divide on their own spreading like wildfire. This could potentially wreak havoc with far-reaching consequences that would become hard to contain.

There are two risks in biotechnology, as of now; one is the unintended or unexplored consequences that may arise and the second is weaponizing biology to cause major harm.

Unanticipated Consequences

To understand the consequences associated with biotechnology, there is much in the past to look into and learn from. For example, scientists made interesting observations when they dug into the clues in the DNA Of HIV immune people. It appeared to them that the individuals immune to such virus mutated the protein that is the landing pad for HIV.

Since these patients were healthy without the absence of such protein, the researchers entertained certain ideas. The one that stood out the most was deleting this gene entirely in the cells of the infected or at-risk patients, as a means of having this as the permanent solution to HIV and AIDS.

With the new tool, ‘DNA scissors’ called CRISPR/Cas9, the possibility of cutting unwanted gene or gene surgery became a reality. Also called ‘Editing DNA to Cure Disease.’ This does give rise to infinite possibilities but trials of CRISPR/Cas9 have shown more troubling results than what was anticipated. With mutations showing in the parts of the genome that wasn’t targeted within the DNA can deteriorate someone’s health even more than improve it.

More so, if such unstable edits were made to embryos, this could result in unwanted changes that could permanently enter the gene pool altering the gene structure of all future generations. Moreover, with ‘Designer Babies,’ which includes allowing parents to choose the traits of their babies, the ethicists argue the consequences that are to follow later.

It is true, as we still a gaping hole between our understanding of not just the genes that might be causing a certain disease but also the disease itself. Moreover, we also are unaware of the after-effects of the gene mutation or surgery.

This was just one of the many case studies that describe the uncertainty that comes along with biotechnology. Another risk that is so often discussed and has shown its face in the form of a threat from North Korea, would be weaponizing biotech.

Weaponizing Biology

Risks of Biotechnology
Via Wikipedia

So far we have observed the devastating effects of natural borne diseases like Ebola and Zika Virus. However, the malicious use of biotechnology could lead to disastrous terrorist or state war, resulting in outbreaks on purpose. Also called bioweapons. These biological weapons can prove to be deadlier than a regular war as it won’t cause generational or transmittal destruction. These bioweapons translate into deadly diseases, poisons, and genetic warfare.

Referencing back to North Korea, which could be armed with advanced, underestimated, and highly lethal bioweapons that are deadlier than a nuclear bomb. North Korea is collaborating with foreign researchers to learn and develop advanced biotechnology skills along with the machinery to support their weaponry biotechnology pursuits; according to an analysis issued by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

This is one of the long-standing threats of biotechnology that shouldn’t be ignored for the sake of humanity. What is even more alarming, that with the recent advances in biotechnology, these bioweapons can be produced with much less and cheap materials. Provided you have adequate scientific knowledge. Additionally, with the rapid research advances and accessibility over the web, it doesn’t take long to Google a few things and get to work on creating them on your own.

Hopefully,

Scientific advances have allowed ill intentions to exploit biotech advances. Nonetheless, the same scientific researchers can find a solution to such threats before they even come to fruition. Taking the example of COVID. Whether man-made or natural borne, biotechnology enabled rapid production of vaccines that can potentially eliminate COVID entirely; if not completely then reduce the influence to a certain degree.

Of course, behind such biotechnology firms are biotech consulting firms, that are doing their part in providing maximum assistance where required in order to generate favorable results. The benefits and risks of biotechnology are immense, the pros to be more than the cons. However, the threat cannot be undermined. Nonetheless, this post must have given you the necessary insight.

Sources:

  • https://theconversation.com/crispr-cas-gene-editing-technique-holds-great-promise-but-research-moratorium-makes-sense-pending-further-study-43371?sa=pg1&sq=bessen&sr=1
  • http://crosstalk.cell.com/blog/5-biotech-trends-im-excited-about-in-2020
  • https://advancedbiotech.in/biotechnology-applications-in-industry/
  • https://builtin.com/biotech
  • https://byjus.com/biology/what-is-biotechnology/
  • https://www.bio.org/what-biotechnology