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Biotech: A Casual Primer

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So what is biotechnology?

Starting with the basics, the literal translation of the word is the combination of Biology (study of living organisms) + Technology (tools and techniques used to produce things). So essentially “biotech” could cover a rather large range of possibilities and under this general definition clearly include a number of inventions from the past, that we might not normally recognize as products of biotechnology.

Biotech? You bet...but of the pre-modern kind.

For example, have you ever eaten a piece of cheese? Or have you ever had a cold beer? Well, both of these everyday products are part of a rather large group of foods and beverages that are created from bacteria fermentation. This process converts molecules (usually sugars) into other  molecules (alcohols, acids etc.), that can the be put into the products we want. So thousands of years ago people have been using a very early form of biotech, using organisms to fabricate desired products. Another example of ancient biotech can be seen in selective breeding. Do you own a dog? If you do which breed is it? A Great-Dane or maybe a stylish Chihuahua? No matter what breed you own the reason you have that very unique dog is because thousands of years ago humans began to domesticate wolves (genetic ancestor for all dogs) and continuously bred the wolves which showed desirable traits. By selectively breeding for desired traits you can ultimately steer the gene pool of an organism to a desired result. So the reason you have that Great-Dane is because somewhere down the line of breeding wolves someone wanted a large dog capable of  being strong enough to fend off predators and so they kept breeding the largest progeny with other large mates to promote the advancement of large size. Here we can see that an ancient form of biotech can be used to produce an organism with desired traits and capabilities (a product if you will).

The Wolfmother Infographic illustrates the diverse array of K9 "products" we have today as a result of 'pre-modern biotech' working on wolves. Design collective Always With Honor (http://alwayswithhonor.com/) made the graphic for Wired.

Modern Biotech

Now that we have a good understanding that biotechnology is interconnected in many of the things that we take for granted today we can delve into the aspects and strides that the field of modern biotech has become today. Biotechnology today has taken on a more precise form of scientific processes to accomplish its agenda, but the overall goal of using biological phenomena to create new products is still the central dogma. Modern biotech utilizes genetic modification to yield desired products. By cutting codes of DNA and splicing in different codes from other organisms or from the laboratory new traits can be established in organisms. The new traits can then be utilized to acquire a product,  perform new biological duties, or create more resilient organisms. Insulin is a great example of a modern biotech product. Scientists cut a portion of E. coli DNA and spliced in a portion of DNA that codes for the production of insulin. The insulin produced by the genetically modified E. coli is harvested and then used by diabetic patients. Another crucial role that biotech has played recently is the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. A bacteria was genetically modified with an enhanced hydrocarbon eating characteristic. Rather than using harsh chemicals to break up the oil or burning the oil, this modified organism was used to help naturally deteriorate the oil. Today these bacteria are employed in both the BP Gulf oil spill, and the less publicized Dalian City oil spill in China.

Image of 'oil-eating' bacteria developed by Beijing Weiyeyuan Bio-Technology Company. The Bacteria was used for the Dalian City Oil Spill in 2010.

Industry Breakdown

Looking at the four examples provided (beer, dogs, insulin, oil eating bacteria) I became inspired to find how the biotech industry was organized if at all, in my research it became apparent that biotech has been subdivided into four leading sectors that have been colour coded for simple reference. First wave or Green biotech (since 1984) which works with agricultural products, producing new foods or engineering current gene stock. Second wave or Red biotech (since 1980) dealing with the medical field and pharmaceutical products like insulin. Third wave or White biotech (since the early 1990′s) has an industrial nature as they create commercial products with desired traits, the development of dog breeds would fall under this category. Fourth wave, currently without a color code, biotech (since the mid 1990′s) has an environmental aspect  working to clean and preserve nature just like the genetically modified bacteria that eats away oil spills. A fifth major sector for biotech is bioinformatics (since the 1980′s) which is the acquisition of knowledge on genetic codes, gene stocks, biotech processes, products and ideas. Bioinformatics feeds the four waves of biotech with the knowledge they need to actively work on their projects.

Map of Global Biotech Regions and Industry Leaders

Research Findings

Throughout my research I ran into some rather interesting recurrences and challenges. Majority of the biotech companies worldwide can be seen in four major regions of the world: USA, northern Europe, India, and south eastern Asia + Australia. These regions are playing pivotal rolls in the advancement of biotech research and development and are home to the major biotech companies in the world.

Another important finding in my research is that there seems to be a large amount of information concerning biotech missing from public knowledge. While it is possible to find  large amounts of information, there is almost no public access to data concerning  detailed information on companies and products, market analysis or the major trends in biotech. This information is extremely private, not accessible to for general research, and only available at a high price (reports from 3rd party researchers). It is possible to speculate that this is the case on account of how brand new modern biotech is and that there is probably fierce competition between private companies.

Another interesting find in my research was that there are a few large corporations (such as Roche and Cargill for example) that have begun purchasing and acquiring large amounts of biotech companies.

Written by Luca

October 26th, 2010 at 12:55 am

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