10 April 2008

Biotechnology: What’s in a name?

By Associate Professor Dr Clem Kuek

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

The way that the term “biotechnology” has been used by both the scientific and lay community has led to confusion and imprecision in what actually constitutes this technology.

There are good reasons to be clear, for example, for the compiling of economic statistics, for ensuring that stimulus given by government reaches the intended recipients, and for as simple a reason as choosing a university course to set a career direction.

A definition
Of the many definitions that can be found, my preference is this one which has been adopted by countries such as Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland,Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Spain, Switzerland viz. it is a diverse collection of technologies where “the application of science and technology to living organisms, as well as parts, products and models thereof, to alter living or non-living materials for the production of knowledge, goods and services (OECD, 2005) ” is practiced.

An equally good definition is: “the application of scientific and engineering principles to the processing of materials by biological agents to provide goods and services”.

Thus, where the in vitro culture of cells of a particular plant species to realize an active compound in higher concentration than would otherwise be obtained is an example of biotechnology, the mere collection of biomass of that plant to then extract the active compound is probably not.

Glamour takes centre stage
The wide range of technologies which constitute biotechnology means that we often hear or learn about aspects of the technology under its broad title (simply “biotechnology”) whereas what is actually being referred to may be subsets known as agricultural biotechnology, medical biotechnology, marine biotechnology and so on.

With medical biotechnology being particularly “media-genic ” it is hardly surprising that many people think medical biotechnology is all that biotechnology is. It is not.

Some examples
Biotechnology is at work all around us. Tempe (a product; a good) is cooked soya beans (material) fermented with a fungus (biological agent).

Soya sauce and fish sauce are the breakdown products of soya beans and seafood respectively through the controlled action of a consortium of microorganisms.

The farmed eggs that you eat are nicely orange in hue because of the addition to chicken feed of beta-carotene, one of the natural sources of which is an alga grown in large salt ponds.

Citric acid, which has many food applications such as in carbonated soft drinks, is made through exploiting the biochemistry of a fungus in a big production tank where oxygen level, acid/base level, nutrient levels, and mixing is precisely controlled.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is similarly produced except the biological agent used is a bacterium.

An artificial meat (trademarked Quorn) has been developed from a mass cultured fungus that is texturized and flavoured to give a taste and mouth feeling mimicking meat but without the cholesterol and fat level of real meats.
Many industrial polymers such as xanthan (used in food, caustic and acidic cleansers, paints, oil mining) are also sourced from microorganisms.

Industrial enzymes are used in a wide range processes including the manufacture of glucose and other nutritive sweeteners, food processing, and detergent preparations such as laundry powders where amylase, proteinases and lipases have been added as boosters to deal with starchy, oily and proteinaceous soils.

These industrial enzymes are produced using fungi and bacteria. Most antibiotics are sourced from either fungi, actinomycetes or bacteria. The most famous example is the case of the discovery of penicillin from the Penicillium fungus.

Bacteria are even put to work in the mining of metals via bioleaching e.g. for copper where in a coupled reaction, the bacteria oxidize ferrous iron in the ore to produce ferric iron which catalyzes the change from copper sulphide to copper sulphate from which copper is then recovered.

Biological agents are also at work as mediators e.g. in waste treatment where their ability to transform materials from one form(problem-causing or toxic matter) to another (innocuous matter) is harnessed.

Through steps in secondary and tertiary treatment, wastewater can be returned to a quality fair enough for re-entry into natural bodies of water. This is possible through the management of microorganisms in the wastewater process plant.

In some cases, whole microorganisms are not used and the technology developed to understand and manipulate their genetic material has found application.

In agriculture, the gene from a bacterium that codes for the production of a toxin that is specific to certain insect pests of peanut and cotton plants has been added to the genetic material of the agricultural plant itself such that the plant itself produces the toxin in its tissues.

The insect pests that attack these plants will perish thus negating the need to spray with indiscriminate chemical insecticides.

In forensic science, the ability to compare the DNA patterns between samples taken from a crime scene and from a suspect(s) has made a revolutionary change to crime-solving. These are but a few examples of biotechnology at work.

Underlying all these examples is a message to you that these processes require the input and expertise of people with the requisite knowledge of the sciences that underpin biotechnology: microbiology, biochemistry, and molecular biology all threaded together with bioprocess technology and some knowledge of the business world.

Associate Professor Dr Clem Kuek can be contacted at ckuek@swinburne.edu.my .