Biotechnology Applications

What you’ll learn to do: Identify societal uses of biotechnology

This video provides an introduction to some of the newest breakthroughs in biotechnology: biofuel, health, and agriculture.


In this outcome we will discuss the ways biotechnology is used in our society.

Learning Outcomes

  • List at least 3 medicinal uses of biotechnology advances
  • List at least 3 agricultural uses of biotechnology advances

Medicinal Biotechnology

It is easy to see how biotechnology can be used for medicinal purposes. Knowledge of the genetic makeup of our species, the genetic basis of heritable diseases, and the invention of technology to manipulate and fix mutant genes provides methods to treat the disease.

Genetic Diagnosis and Gene Therapy

To cure disease using an adenovirus vector, a new gene intended to replace a defective one is packaged with the adenovirus genome. The genes that make the virus pathogenic are removed. The modified DNA is put inside the virus’ capsid, or protein coat. The person to be cured is infected with the modified virus. Viral DNA enters the nucleus, where the modified gene can replace the defective one.

Figure 1. Gene therapy using an adenovirus vector can be used to cure certain genetic diseases in which a person has a defective gene. (credit: NIH)

The process of testing for suspected genetic defects before administering treatment is called genetic diagnosis by genetic testing. Depending on the inheritance patterns of a disease-causing gene, family members are advised to undergo genetic testing. For example, women diagnosed with breast cancer are usually advised to have a biopsy so that the medical team can determine the genetic basis of cancer development. Treatment plans are based on the findings of genetic tests that determine the type of cancer. If the cancer is caused by inherited gene mutations, other female relatives are also advised to undergo genetic testing and periodic screening for breast cancer. Genetic testing is also offered for fetuses (or embryos with in vitro fertilization) to determine the presence or absence of disease-causing genes in families with specific debilitating diseases.

Gene therapy is a genetic engineering technique used to cure disease. In its simplest form, it involves the introduction of a good gene at a random location in the genome to aid the cure of a disease that is caused by a mutated gene. The good gene is usually introduced into diseased cells as part of a vector transmitted by a virus that can infect the host cell and deliver the foreign DNA (Figure 1). More advanced forms of gene therapy try to correct the mutation at the original site in the genome, such as is the case with treatment of severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID).

Here’s a website to help you learn more information on SCID and its gene therapy trials.

Production of Vaccines, Antibiotics, and Hormones

Traditional vaccination strategies use weakened or inactive forms of microorganisms to mount the initial immune response. Modern techniques use the genes of microorganisms cloned into vectors to mass produce the desired antigen. The antigen is then introduced into the body to stimulate the primary immune response and trigger immune memory. Genes cloned from the influenza virus have been used to combat the constantly changing strains of this virus.

Antibiotics are a biotechnological product. They are naturally produced by microorganisms, such as fungi, to attain an advantage over bacterial populations. Antibiotics are produced on a large scale by cultivating and manipulating fungal cells.

Recombinant DNA technology was used to produce large-scale quantities of human insulin in E. coli as early as 1978. Previously, it was only possible to treat diabetes with pig insulin, which caused allergic reactions in humans because of differences in the gene product. In addition, human growth hormone (HGH) is used to treat growth disorders in children. The HGH gene was cloned from a cDNA library and inserted into E. coli cells by cloning it into a bacterial vector.

In Summary: Medicinal Biotechnology

Transgenic organisms possess DNA from a different species, usually generated by molecular cloning techniques. Vaccines, antibiotics, and hormones are examples of products obtained by recombinant DNA technology. Transgenic plants are usually created to improve characteristics of crop plants.

Agricultural Biotechnology

Biotechnology in agriculture can enhance resistance to disease, pest, and environmental stress, and improve both crop yield and quality.

Transgenic Animals

Although several recombinant proteins used in medicine are successfully produced in bacteria, some proteins require a eukaryotic animal host for proper processing. For this reason, the desired genes are cloned and expressed in animals, such as sheep, goats, chickens, and mice. Animals that have been modified to express recombinant DNA are called transgenic animals. Several human proteins are expressed in the milk of transgenic sheep and goats, and some are expressed in the eggs of chickens. Mice have been used extensively for expressing and studying the effects of recombinant genes and mutations.

Transgenic Plants

Photo shows corn cobs with different colors, including yellow, white, red, and a mixture of these colors.

Figure 1. Corn, a major agricultural crop used to create products for a variety of industries, is often modified through plant biotechnology. (credit: Keith Weller, USDA)

Manipulating the DNA of plants (i.e., creating GMOs) has helped to create desirable traits, such as disease resistance, herbicide and pesticide resistance, better nutritional value, and better shelf-life (Figure 1). Plants are the most important source of food for the human population. Farmers developed ways to select for plant varieties with desirable traits long before modern-day biotechnology practices were established.

Plants that have received recombinant DNA from other species are called transgenic plants. Because they are not natural, transgenic plants and other GMOs are closely monitored by government agencies to ensure that they are fit for human consumption and do not endanger other plant and animal life. Because foreign genes can spread to other species in the environment, extensive testing is required to ensure ecological stability. Staples like corn, potatoes, and tomatoes were the first crop plants to be genetically engineered.

Transformation of Plants Using Agrobacterium tumefaciens

Gene transfer occurs naturally between species in microbial populations. Many viruses that cause human diseases, such as cancer, act by incorporating their DNA into the human genome. In plants, tumors caused by the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens occur by transfer of DNA from the bacterium to the plant. Although the tumors do not kill the plants, they make the plants stunted and more susceptible to harsh environmental conditions. Many plants, such as walnuts, grapes, nut trees, and beets, are affected by A. tumefaciens. The artificial introduction of DNA into plant cells is more challenging than in animal cells because of the thick plant cell wall.

Researchers used the natural transfer of DNA from Agrobacterium to a plant host to introduce DNA fragments of their choice into plant hosts. In nature, the disease-causing A. tumefaciens have a set of plasmids, called the Ti plasmids (tumor-inducing plasmids), that contain genes for the production of tumors in plants. DNA from the Ti plasmid integrates into the infected plant cell’s genome. Researchers manipulate the Ti plasmids to remove the tumor-causing genes and insert the desired DNA fragment for transfer into the plant genome. The Ti plasmids carry antibiotic resistance genes to aid selection and can be propagated in E. coli cells as well.

Flavr Savr Tomato

The first GM crop to be introduced into the market was the Flavr Savr Tomato produced in 1994. Antisense RNA technology was used to slow down the process of softening and rotting caused by fungal infections, which led to increased shelf life of the GM tomatoes. Additional genetic modification improved the flavor of this tomato. The Flavr Savr tomato did not successfully stay in the market because of problems maintaining and shipping the crop. However, since that time numerous crop plants have been developed and approved for sale and consumption. Corn, soybeans, and cotton in particular have been widely adopted by U.S. farmers.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.