Friday, December 23, 2005
Biotechnology is the use or alteration of organisms, cells, or biological molecules to accomplish a task. This is not really anything new. Traditional applications of biotech date back 5000 years (e.g., Brewing and wine making; using bacteria to ferment milk to make yogurt, or to produce pickles or salami). What is new is genetic engineering, which dates back to 1976, and which involves the manipulation of the DNA of an organism to suppress or enhance the activities of its own genes (e.g., using bacterial genes to prevent frost damage in strawberries). Recombinant DNA technology involves combining DNA from different species (e.g., inserting human insulin genes into bacteria so that they produce human insulin). The term biotechnology today usually also includes such technologies as the production of transgenic species, clones and stem cells, as well genomics (the study of entire DNA sequences and the genes for a given species) and proteomics (the study of the entire pool of proteins produced by a given species under varying conditions).
Biotechnology, like all new technologies, has produced a considerable amount of fear and mistrust. Much of this is due to ignorance (the technology is complex and not easy to understand) exacerbated by misinformation put out by detractors. Some of the mistrust has resulted from a history of malfeasance, greed and dishonesty by big Pharma (e.g., Vioxx, DES, Thalidamide). While biotechnology can provide exquisite solutions to many problems (e.g., bacterially produced human insulin is cheaper and less likely to cause allergic reactions in diabetics than the older technology of using cow insulin) there is ample reason for the public to be concerned. For example, the growing use of Terminator seed technology prevents farmers from collecting seeds from their own harvests each year, making them more dependent on big Pharma and less economically independent and viable. This can be particularly devastating for peasants and subsistence farmers in the developing nations. Pollen from genetically modified plants can travel via wind or insects and contaminate crops far away from their source. This can affect entire ecosystems by introducing new plant produced toxins that destroy insects that are food sources for bird that become threatened. The use of plants as bioreactors to produce hormones or other drugs may be cheaper than chemically synthesizing them in the lab, but these drugs may contaminate the soil and ground water, affecting the organisms that live there, as well as those who drink the water.