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Biotechnology is the use of biological processes to help solve problems in the world. Through the use of living cells, biotechnology allows for the efficient manufacturing of various useful products. Biotechnology encompasses many diverse fields, from immunology, to renewable energy, to agriculture. The products of biotechnology are all around us; around the world over 10 million farmers use products of agricultural biotechnology to improve yields and reduce environmental impact. By studying how viruses infect human cells, biotechnicians are finding cures for deadly diseases like ebola and Lassa fever. Biotechnology has yielded strains of bacteria than can produce diesel fuel, providing us with a renewable energy source, and other strains that consume it, useful in the cleanup of oil spills.
Although biotechnology is often viewed as an emerging field, it actually began around 8000 BC, when humans first began to domesticate plants and animals. Biotechnology as we know it today, with a focus on cellular structures and microorganisms, was made possible by the discovery of cells in the 17th century. As science progressed in its understanding of cells, proteins, and genes, biotechnology also progressed in its ability to harness these systems to improve our quality of life. In 1953, biologists James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double helix structure of DNA. From this discovery, we were able to begin sequencing genes and determining the functions of specific genes within a genome.
Because of the universality of genetic code, a well known function of biotechnology is to improve the efficiency of production of biological materials. A chemical treatment for malaria, for example, has been discovered in a plant. Until recently, the only way to isolate the chemical was to spend years raising and cultivating the plants, then harvest them and extract the cure. Recently, however, biotechnicians have discovered the gene coding for chemical, and introduced it into a species of bacteria. The bacteria can be grown in a lab much faster and much more inexpensively than the plant where the cure was originally found, making the cure more accessible to malaria patients.
One of the most amazing things about biotechnology is its nearly endless possibilities. Our understanding of genetic code allows us use living cells to isolate genes and produce any known protein. In fact, if there was a protein where we for any reason could not isolate the gene coding for it, scientists can synthesize nucleic acids in the lab and create their own strand of DNA coding for the protein in question. These can include anything from anti-freeze in many species of insect to incredibly strong, lightweight spider silk. Humans technology is rarely able to outdo its counterparts in nature. We have yet to build a computer with more power than the human brain; whale’s fins are still more efficient than the propellers on our boats. Biotechnology allows us to use the tools already in nature, rather than trying to reinvent them.
Another interesting part of biotechnology is the chance to, as a professional, change your world for the better. Whether it’s curing diseases, reducing pollution, or increasing food yield, biotechnology is driven by the need for solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems. A career as a biotechnician allows you to use your knowledge of science to potentially affect the lives of millions of people.
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