Monday, March 4, 2013

Modern Biotechnology

Biology is the science of life and the study of living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, origin, evolution, and distribution (Merriam & Webster, 2012). Advancements in the study of Biology have lead to discoveries that have revolutionized medical care and agriculture in a variety of ways, we call these advancements Biotechnology.  Biotechnology as defined as by Merriam & Webster is “the manipulation, through genetic engineering, of living organisms or their components to produce useful, and usually commercial, products such as pest resistant crops, new bacterial strains, or novel pharmaceuticals” (Merriam & Webster, 2012). This paper will look at a few examples of Biotechnology advancements in the fields of Medical and Agriculture; including a first generation biotechnological advancement Semi-Synthetic Penicillin, and more modern examples like the Arctic Apple, the Greenleaf Potato, and the new discipline in neuroscience called “Optogenetics".

A first generation example of medical Biotechnology is the manipulation of Biosynthetic Penicillin that occurs naturally and is “harvested from the mould itself through fermentation”, and later, genetically altered to create Semi-Synthetic Penicillins like Ampicillin, Penicillin V, Carbenicillin, Oxacillin, Methicillin, etc (Hare & White, 2010, para. 2). These semi-synthetic penicillin varieties have been manipulated and chemically altered to possess a variety of beneficial qualities, such as “resistance to stomach acids so that they can be taken orally, a degree of resistance to penicillinase, and an extended range of activity against some Gram-negative bacteria” (Hare & White, 2010, para. 3).  Semi-Synthetic Penicillins  are altered chemically in such a way that removes the acyl group to leave 6-aminopenicillanic acid, and then adding acyl groups that produce new properties”; by doing so, we have changed the properties of the mould that is naturally occurring to expand its usefulness to treating illness (Hare & White, 2010, para. 4).  By practically applying the knowledge that we have gained about the underlying chemicals and molecular structure of Biosynthetic Penicillin we have been given the technology, or capability of improved treatment of medical illnesses with our advancement in biotechnology called Semi-Synthetic Penicillin.

The Arctic Apple is a modern example of genetic engineering that has brought to us the experience of a Non-Browning Apple.  In a typical apple when the skin is ruptured a plant enzyme found in one part of the cell called polyphenol oxidase (PPO) mixes with a type of plant-protein cell called polyphenolics, and when these two properties interact the result is a brown toned melanin stain on the apple (Okanagan Specialty Fruits, 2011, para. 2). We often call this brown stain on an apple a bruised apple, or refer to this brown stained apple as a rotten apple. Advances in genetic sequencing gave scientists the ability to map the genome of the apple, and it was during this process they discovered the four genes that were involved with the PPO production (Okanagan Specialty Fruits, 2011, para. 2). Later, a science team at Okanagan Specialty Fruits used gene silencing to turn down the expression of PPO in the genetically engineered Arctic Apple Tree (Okanagan Specialty Fruits, 2011, para. 3). The Arctic Apple Tree blooms and bears fruit in an orchard and behaves like every other apple tree despite missing this polyphenol oxidase property (Okanagan Specialty Fruits, 2011, para. 3). Because the arctic apple is compositionally and nutritionally similar to your regular apples, the only difference between a normal apple and the Arctic Apple is the Arctic Apple does not brown when the skin is bitten, sliced or damaged (Okanagan Specialty Fruits, 2011, para. 3)

While Biotechnology has changed the apple to better suit the consumer other advances in Biotechnology seek to find answers to the problems associated with growing produce.  Farmers who rely on crops for income and business prosperity, and merchants who rely on the farmer’s crops for quality produce at a reasonable cost are at the mercy of the environment the produce is grown in. Historically, crops have been disturbed by pests and farmers have sought to reduce crop damage by many methods. Farmers have used as many different solutions as they could think of, such as netting, green houses, flowers that repel the pest naturally, and pesticides.

Pesticides are controversial because the food grown is consumed by humans and the soil that the food is grown in is part of our earth. The contamination of our earth is major concern  because the contaminates in our soil become part of our water, and contaminate our drinking sources, as well as affect our water life and other natural cycles within our biome and bodies. However, the reduction of pesticide use reduces crop production and increases production cost; this in turn increases the product cost for the consumer. Genetically engineering our food or the soil our food is grown in would have several advantages. Because the product would no longer requires pesticide during production it would decrease damage done to our environment, decrease crop loss due to pest infestation, decrease cost associated with the use of pesticide, and potentially decrease consumer cost. Interestingly, the marketing success of the genetically engineered produce that is pest resistant was not as guaranteed as one would believe. 

Potatoes are very vulnerable to disease, pest, and insect damage (Thornton, 2003, p.236). In United States approximately 1.3 billion acres of potatoes are grown annually, costing on average $1000/per acre depending on factors within the environment, particularly pest problems. In areas, where there is high “pest pressure” that $1000/per acre can double (Thornton, 2003, p. 235). To combat this problem more than 80% of the acreage in potato fields are being treated with chemicals like herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides (Thornton, 2003, p. 236). Reducing the amount of pesticide we use by 50% percent would result in an estimated 27% loss in crop yields for potato producers, and if producers completely stopped using pesticides it is estimated that 57% of crops could be lost to disease and pests (Thornton, 2003, p. 236).  Applications to control the Colorado Potato Beetle and the Potato Leafroll Virus account for more than 80% of pesticide use in potato farming (Thornton, 2003, p. 236); this could be reduced significantly by planting the genetically engineered potatoes that are resistant to Colorado potato beetle and Potato Leafroll Virus, like the New Leaf Potato introduced to the market in 2005.

The Green Leaf Potato was genetically engineered to be pest resistant by introducing a gene encoding for the CryIIIA. This gene expresses itself in the leaves of the potatoes and provides protection from the Colorado potato beetle, later this was further modified to resist the Potato LeafRoll Virus too (Thornton, 2003, p. 237). The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP) reported that insecticide use in the Pacific Northwest states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington could be reduced significantly if the genetically engineered potatoes were planted in 620,000 acres of the 1.3-million acres planted annually (Thornton, 2003, p. 237). It is estimated that this change would have a net economic impact of over $58-million (Thornton, 2003, p. 237). Despite the proven success of the potato pest resistance and the savings, the market had the last word; buyer and consumer unrest about genetically engineered food put the New Leaf Potato industry out of business because the producers were reluctant to make the change (Thornton, 2003, p. 239).

 Pest resistance is only one of the many ways Biotechnology is able to change the potato (Thornton, 2003, p. 241). Potatoes “with increased solids, better storage characteristics, and improved nutritional content have been evaluated in field trials” (Thornton, 2003, p. 241). The ability to genetically engineer the genes instead of using traditional methods of cross breeding within the potato has speed up the rate at which we can create and produce new varieties of potatoes. Traditionally, creating and releasing a new breed of potatoes could take upwards of 15 years because of how long it takes to cross a breed that consistently produces the desired potatoes (Thornton, 2003, p. 236).  

Medically the modern advancements in biotechnology have come a far way from penicillin leading to ground breaking work that have many promising implications for the treatment of neurological conditions.  In 2013, explorations into the microscopic green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii and rhodopsins from microbes have lead to an additional discipline in the field of neurosciences called "optogenetics"; which offers potential insight into better treatment for certain neurological disorders (NewsRx, 2013, para. 2). Peter Hegemann and Georg Nagel (2013) have been awarded the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine for their discovery of ion channels that can be activated by light (NewsRx, 2013, para. 7). This award was awarded jointly to them for their collaboration on the study of proteins that lead to the new discipline “optogenetics” offering a completely new perspective into the treatment of certain neurological disorders (NewsRx, 2013, para. 7).

The ceremony will be held in Geneva, Switzerland on Thursday, April 18, 2013 (NewsRx, 2013, para. 10) where Peter Hegemann and Georg Nagel will be awarded their joint prize of 625'000 CHF for the continuation of the prize-winning work, and 75'000 CHF for their personal use (NewsRx, 2013, para. 2). This is about the equivalent to $769,353.00 total in U.S. currency. Independently each doctor made their own discovery; Peter Hegemann demonstrated that photosensitive proteins control the movements of the microscopic green alga called  Chlamydomonas reinhardtii and Georg Nagel demonstrated  that rhodopsins from microbes, including those from the Chlamydomonas reinhardtii alga, can be introduced into animal cells where they perform fine and their functioning can be studied in depth (NewsRx, 2013, para. 8). Together they studied the functionality of proteins and discovered the unique quality that ion channels possess, thus allowing them to activate by light exposure (NewsRx, 2013, para. 8). The discovery of light activated ion channels is useable in the study of neural circuits in vitro and in vivo, and has proved to be highly precise (NewsRx, 2013, para. 8).

From Organic Fertilizers, Bio Fertilizers, and Bio Pesticide to the non- browning apple and the pest resistant potato the advances in genetic engineering and Biotechnology have changed agriculture in ways we could never have imagined 20 years ago. While advances in biological research bring to light promising discoveries that have potential to offer us new treatments for neurological disorders, give us a new precise way to study neural circuits in vitro and in vivo, and create an entire new discipline of neuroscience “optogenetics”.  It is clear that the study of genetics and cellular manipulation has brought to us a variety of solutions to problems that have haunted humanity for a long time, and future explorations are only likely to give us the same result. However, what is not so clear is will myths that surround genetically altered food continue to prevent these new discoveries like the Greenleaf Potatoes, or Arctic Apple from becoming main stream items. I find it very perplexing that humans are willing to take or use an experimental drug or procedure that could have unknown results yet might save their life. However, they are unwilling to use technology like the genetically engineered food that has proven to be nutritionally the same, an excellent source of nutrition, ultimately cheaper to produce and safer for the environment to grow.      


Merriam & Webster. (2012). Define Biotechnology. Merriam & Webster Online Dictionary.          Retrieved from

Merriam & Webster. (2012). Define Biology. Merriam & Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved    from

Hare, T. & L. White. (2011). Penicillin Production. Retrieved from  

NewsRx. (2013). Biotechnology companies; 2013 louis-jeantet prize for medicine. Biotech            Business Week, 88. Retrieved from  

Okanagan Specialty Fruits. (2011). Arctic Apple: How’d we “make” a nonbrowning apple?          Okanagan Specialty Fruits. Retrieved from

Thornton, M., (2003). The Rise and Fall of NewLeaf Potatoes. NABC Report 15: Biotechnology: Science and Society at a Crossroad, pp. 235–243. Retrieved from