Rice plants being propagated using tissue culture. Credit, IRRI.

Rice plants being propagated using tissue culture. Credit, IRRI.

Biotechnology is the use of living systems and organisms to develop or make products, or “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use.”[1]  A modern, more inclusive, definition encompasses any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or their derivatives to make useful products or processes.[2]

Driving modern biotechnology is the revolution in cellular and molecular biology that occurred in the second half of the 20th century, which uses our knowledge of DNA and RNA (both nucleic acids, and, along with proteins and carbohydrates, constituting the three major macromolecules essential for all known forms of life) to identify the genetic basis of useful traits in animals and plants. The 1970s saw the advent of recombinant DNA techniques, gene transfer and artificial insemination whilst in the 1980s the first commercial product deriving from gene transfer, insulin, was released. Genetic fingerprinting, genetic engineering and cloning were then developed. Today the fields of bioinformatics, genomics and proteomics (the study of protein structure and functions) are continuing to revolutionise agricultural biotechnology.[3]

Golden Rice. Credit, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Golden Rice. Credit, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

New cellular and molecular techniques open up a new world in which breeders can deliberately design and engineer new plant and animal types, speedily and with much less reliance on random processes. Under the general title of biotechnology, they are already having a significant impact on both medicine and plant and animal breeding, through three practical techniques:

Marker-aided selection (MAS) is based on the ability to detect the presence of particular DNA sequences at specific locations in an organism and link these to the presence of genes responsible for particular traits. It greatly speeds up conventional breeding.[4]

Tissue culture permits the growth of whole plants from a single cell or clump of cells in an artificial medium and, under certain circumstances, can stimulate mutation. It has become a powerful tool in the production of wide crosses, whereby wild relatives, often hosting desirable traits such as disease resistance, are crossed with domestic varieties.[5]

Recombinant DNA or genetic engineering (GE) or modification (GM) technology enables the direct transfer of genes from one organism to another. Sections of DNA code are located, cleaved and reattached using a variety of naturally occurring enzymes.

Wheat seedlings in a greenhouse germination test to obtain the expression of seed-borne bacterial or viral pathogens and to check seed viability. Credit, X. Fonseca, CIMMYT.

Wheat seedlings in a greenhouse germination test to check seed viability and observe the expression of seed-borne bacterial or viral pathogens. Credit, X. Fonseca, CIMMYT.

Biotechnology is more than just GE. Some of the less controversial techniques are making significant advances in producing more tolerant and resistant crops to biotic and abiotic stresses, such as pests, diseases and water stress. To date, most of the products of biotechnology have been produced in developed countries, mainly for global commodity crops, with limited application in developing countries. Yet, this is changing and increasingly, biotechnologies designed to reduce hunger and malnutrition, adapt to climate change and protect scarce natural resources are being developed and adopted in developing countries themselves.[6]