What is biotechnology in simple terms

What is biotechnology?

As a collective term, biotechnology stands for an almost unmanageable variety of processes, products and methods. According to the definition of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), biotechnology is the application of science and technology to living organisms, parts of them, their products or models of them for the purpose of changing living or non-living matter to expand the level of knowledge, to produce Goods and for the provision of services.

In other words: The possible uses of biotechnology are not limited to one area, but are very diverse. Biotechnologists research microorganisms, plants, animals and humans, but also the smallest parts such as individual cells or molecules. Biotechnology has been used for a long time. Humans have been using living microorganisms for a long time, for example in the production of beer, wine and bread. Modern biotechnology as it is applied today, however, makes targeted use of the methods of molecular biology. The foundations for this were only laid with the growing knowledge of microbiology in the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, through the discovery of the first enzymes as biocatalysts or of bacteria as producers of medicinal substances.

Cross-sectional technology for many industries

Today biotechnology is a widely used cross-sectional technology. It can be used to develop new drugs, breed new types of plants or produce everyday products such as detergents and cosmetics more efficiently. A color theory has emerged to differentiate between these different areas of application: a distinction is made between red, green and white biotechnology, which relates to the fields of medicine (red), agriculture (green) and industry (white).

With regard to the approximately 679 companies active in biotechnology, there is a clear focus on medicine. This is also confirmed by the annual company survey carried out by biotechnologie.de. According to this, a total of 347 companies (51%) developed new drugs or diagnostic tests in 2018. An almost as large proportion of companies are not active in any specific field, but for several user industries. A total of 203 companies (30%) were assigned to the category of non-specific applications defined by the OECD. This includes companies that exclusively or predominantly provide services for other biotech companies or act as suppliers for them. Purely contract manufacturers of biological molecules without their own development activities were also counted in this category. This segment is the second most important in the industry and is almost as important as medical biotechnology.

Growing importance of white biotechnology

Industrial or white biotechnology follows at a greater distance. For 69 companies (10.2%) in Germany, the main field of activity is the development of technical enzymes, new biomaterials or biotechnological production processes Chemical industry run. Therefore, the overall importance of this sector is to be assessed as greater.

Only 20 companies (2.9%) can be assigned to green or agro-biotechnology. However, since this field is dominated by large companies, as is the case with white biotechnology, the importance of the field here is also to be assessed greater than the sheer number of dedicated biotechnology companies suggests. 40 companies (5.9%) deal with the field of bioinformatics, which is increasingly important for many applications.

Red biotechnology: medicine

Medical biotechnology is also called red biotechnology and deals with the development of new therapeutic and diagnostic processes. The foundations of medical biotechnology, as it is understood today, were only laid a few decades ago in the course of modern genome research. The discovery of the molecular structure of DNA as a hereditary molecule in 1953 by the Americans James Watson and Francis Crick triggered an enormous boost. A milestone that was not so long ago was the deciphering of the human genome in 2001. Since then, methods for genome analysis have developed further by leaps and bounds.

The genetic information is the blueprint for all life processes. In order to track down the mechanisms of diseases, knowledge of these blueprints is very important. The better the researchers understand which genes are responsible for the production of certain protein molecules, the sooner they can develop targeted drugs. Because that is exactly one of the goals in medical biotechnology: to use biological molecules specifically for therapeutic purposes. Understanding the genome (totality of all genes) and the proteome (totality of all proteins) are therefore elementary prerequisites for biotechnologists. Genome research and proteome research are among the most important platform technologies in biotechnology.

From symptom to cause of illness

Especially in the case of common diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes or cancer, scientists have already discovered numerous new approaches based on the latest findings for even more efficient treatment with fewer side effects or even curing diseases. While it was previously only possible to treat symptoms of a disease in many cases, the causes can now be combated in a targeted manner with the knowledge of genome and proteome researchers. Biotechnology opens up completely new options and at the same time improves the application possibilities for the classic pharmaceutical industry that works with chemical molecules. Here, too, biotechnological processes help to find new or more effective target structures. The concept of using and developing drugs according to a person's molecular biological signature is summarized under the term personalized or individualized medicine. Cancer is one of the most frequently researched diseases.

As the biotechnology company survey carried out annually by biotechnologie.de shows, medicine is one of the most important areas of application of biotechnology for companies. However, it is not only used in the development of new therapeutic approaches. Nowadays, the production of drugs is also increasingly being carried out using biotechnology. According to the Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (VFA), a total of 274 biotechnologically manufactured drugs and vaccines were approved in Germany at the end of 2017. They are produced in specially developed bioreactors. There, microorganisms or animal cells produce the desired preparation. This is especially true for protein-based drugs such as antibodies or hormones. Such active biomolecules can only be produced in their three-dimensional form by living organisms or cells. A chemical replica does not work. It is thanks to genetic engineering that microorganisms and cells can now be genetically modified in such a way that they precisely produce the desired biomolecule. In this way, drugs are created for millions of patients who suffer from diabetes. The insulin used for this therapy is produced in genetically modified bacteria and mammalian cells.

Medical biotechnology as an economic factor

The importance of drugs manufactured in this way is also reflected in the statistics: According to the Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (VFA), biotechnologically manufactured drugs contributed 10.2 billion euros to 26% of total sales in the pharmaceutical industry in Germany in 2017. Biotechnological vaccines are used to prevent diseases or recombinant proteins are used to treat patients with chronic, severe and rare diseases. Protein drugs play an important role in the treatment of immunological diseases (e.g. rheumatism) and cancer. After the USA, Germany is the world's largest production location for biotechnologically manufactured drugs.

Green biotechnology: agriculture

If biotechnological processes are used in agriculture, one speaks of green biotechnology or agrobiotechnology. Without such methods, modern agriculture is no longer conceivable. The foundations for this were primarily laid by plant genome research, which in recent years has brought more and more knowledge to light that can be used specifically for the breeding of new plant varieties.

The genetic optimization of plants has always been an indirect aim of humans, even if it wasn't called that at the time: Millennia ago farmers selected plants that showed desirable properties in terms of their outward appearance, and continued to propagate them. Careful crossing and backcrossing changed the genetic makeup of the plants so that they produced sweet apples or huge corn on the cob. What happens on the genetic level when crossing and backcrossing remained hidden for a long time, until Gregor Mendel laid the foundation for today's modern genetics with his heredity in the 19th century. Since then, the secret of plant genes has been revealed more and more.

The advantage of this knowledge is obvious: in the past, breeders had to rely solely on the observation and analysis of external characteristics and their experience as to whether the plant created by crossing was an object with the desired properties or not. How laborious these processes were and still are in today's breeding is shown by the sometimes decades of development of new plant varieties. Only the advance in knowledge of genome researchers contributed to a great change here. Milestones in green biotechnology were the complete genetic sequencing of the model plant thale cress Arabidopsis thaliana in 2000 and the decoding of the rice genome two years later.

Genome research as the basis for targeted breeding

Based on such data, plant breeders can now determine useful properties of plants at the genetic level and localize the responsible genes in the genetic make-up. Such a map of the plant genome can save an enormous amount of time and money in breeding. With the so-called marker-assisted selection (MAS), plants can be sorted out very early in the breeding process, whether or not they have a desired trait at the genetic level. This means that, in comparison to traditional breeding, there is no longer as many offspring of the plants to be cultivated and tested for their suitability for practical use in test cultivation. At the same time, a much more in-depth analysis of the interactions between different properties is possible. If varieties are bred in this way, one also speaks of smart breeding (precision breeding) and hardly any plant breeder does without it today.

So the demands on the plants have grown enormously. In the field, top priority is given to elite breeding plants, which have very special properties adapted to the respective cultivation and climatic conditions. The objectives of the breeders have changed again and again and are gaining completely new dimensions thanks to the findings in plant genome research. What was too time-consuming, too expensive or simply not feasible with the methods of classic breeding is possible today. The genome of plants can now be changed in a targeted manner, for example to strengthen their defense against pests or to increase the yield of certain substances. The only genetically modified plant approved for cultivation in Germany is currently the starch potato Amflora - genetically modified so that it only produces one instead of two types of starch. Amylose production was stopped by genetic engineering, Amflora is grown in order to obtain amylopectin, which is important for paper production, in its pure form. For industry, there is no need for treatment processes that consume a lot of water and energy.

No commercial cultivation of genetic engineering plants

After a few years of cultivation on small areas, the controversial Amflora has been in this country since 2012
However, it is no longer cultivated and BASF has relocated its research and development activities on green genetic engineering to the USA. In 2009 the federal government banned the cultivation of the Bt maize variety MON810, which had previously been cultivated in several federal states. The maize plants produce an insecticide in their cells that makes the plants resistant to the caterpillars of the widespread plant pest European corn borer. Before 2009, MON810 had been grown on more than 3,000 hectares. MON810 was approved in 1998 in accordance with the then genetic engineering law in the EU - both for cultivation and as food and feed. In some EU countries, "GM maize" is politically controversial. In addition to Germany, other European countries have imposed cultivation bans. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has reviewed the safety of MON810 maize several times. In Europe, Bt maize is only grown in Spain on larger areas. In 2017, the global area for genetically modified plants was 190 million hectares. With around 75 million hectares, the USA continues to be the undisputed leader, followed by Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India.

White biotechnology: industry

Whether in detergents or skin creams - there is biotechnology in a large number of industrial products. In this context, experts speak of white or industrial biotechnology. Reaching into nature's tool box helps industry to work in a more resource-saving and environmentally friendly way. This applies to many foods that have relied on the power of living microorganisms for centuries, such as bread, cheese, beer and wine. But also in the production of high-quality chemicals, pharmaceuticals, vitamins, detergents and cleaning agents, in the finishing of textiles, leather and paper and in the production of many other frequently used objects, methods of white biotechnology have become an integral part of production processes.

The use of natural helpers has a long tradition. In many cultures, methods of fermenting sugary foods into alcohol using yeast, lactic acid fermentation using Lactobacillus strains, or making vinegar using special Acetobacter species were known long before microorganisms were discovered or the underlying processes were understood. The first applications can be seen as early as 6,000 BC. When the Sumerians in Mesopotamia brewed an alcoholic beer-like drink from sprouted barley. But living microorganisms were also used in the production of wine, sourdough bread and cheese from the start? only nobody knew that back then.

Microorganisms as the basis of white biotechnology

The discovery of the microorganisms and the biochemical basis of fermentative processes only took place in the course of the past three centuries. In 1856, for example, Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) discovered microorganisms in contaminated wine barrels, which he named after their shape using the Greek word for sticks, Bacterion. He also found out how fermentation works: while lactic acid bacteria (lactobacilli) produce lactic acid from sugar, yeast in the wine barrels ferment the sugar into alcohol. With his experiments, Pasteur laid the foundation for an understanding of fermentation and established modern microbiology. With his realization that "the role of the infinitely small in nature is infinitely great", the way was paved for modern biotechnology.

Further impulses for the development of this branch of research came from medicine. Robert Koch (1843–1910) was one of the first scientists to recognize the importance of microorganisms as pathogens. In 1876, Koch succeeded in discovering the anthrax bacterium and in 1882 in identifying the tuberculosis pathogen. Previously, it was not microorganisms but so-called miasms - poisons that pollute the air - that were considered to be the cause of illness.

At the same time, the chemists finally provided another piece of the puzzle in the overall understanding of microbiology. In the 18th century, for example, researchers observed that the degradation of a substance could sometimes be accelerated by adding another substance, which apparently was not used up. It was soon possible to extract substances from plants and animal tissues that were associated with the observed reactions and called "ferments". In the 19th century it finally became clear that these were natural biocatalysts. At this time the name "enzymes" (from the Greek "in the yeast") was coined for the biocatalysts. From now on it was applied to all ferments.

Biologization of the industry

Biotechnological applications in industrial production were used early on in leather tanning: The German company Röhm & Haas from Darmstadt, which no longer exists in this form, produced the first industrially used enzyme product OROPON® as early as 1909.It consisted of enzymes that break down proteins, so-called proteases, and decisively improves leather tanning: Until then, stains made from dog excrement and pigeon dung had been used to treat the skins and hides, which could now be replaced by the much more environmentally friendly and cleaner product.

Genome research ultimately drove the dynamic development of modern white biotechnology forward. This knowledge laid the foundations that the evolutionarily created biosynthetic diversity of living nature can now be used in a much more targeted manner for industrial processes. With the demand for a sustainable economy since the 80s and 90s, the resources available in nature have increasingly moved into the social focus. This was linked to the realization for politics and economy that the safeguarding of natural resources for future generations cannot be guaranteed with existing industrial processes in the long term: Above all, the finiteness of fossil fuels contributed to a rethinking and intensified the search for alternatives.

Ecological advantages of biotechnological processes

Biotechnological processes have the advantage over chemical processes that processes can often take place under mild, more environmentally friendly conditions: Microorganisms accomplish complex material conversions with high yield at room temperature and normal pressure, for which chemical processes require high temperatures and high pressure. That is why there are always ecological expectations attached to industrial biotechnology. In many areas - such as detergent or textile production - these have already been fulfilled. Biocatalysts in detergents help to reduce the washing temperature.

In the textile industry, on the other hand, biotechnologists have developed enzyme-based processes to create the popular stonewashed effect on jeans. This was previously achieved using pumice stone. Food additives such as citric acid and drugs such as antibiotics, which are produced with the help of genetically modified microorganisms, have also long been established. They are therefore among the economically most important products of white biotechnology. Hardly any chemical company does without such processes today. At the same time, a small but dynamic scene of biotechnology companies has established itself offering their services to industry.

With biotechnology in its various facets, many foods, but also high-quality chemicals, enzymes, pharmaceuticals, vitamins, detergents and cleaning agents as well as agrochemicals are already being produced today that have become an indispensable part of everyday life and, according to the German Bioeconomy Council (2010) have a high market importance with currently approx. 80 billion. In addition, there are red biotechnology products, the market volume of which within the pharmaceutical industry already exceeds 100 billion euros. Various studies and analyzes on the potential of white biotechnology expect that the proportion of biotechnological processes in the manufacture of chemical products will increase significantly in the coming years. In the "Cologne Paper" experts estimate that in 2030 biomaterials and bioenergy will account for a third of total industrial production with a volume of around 300 billion euros worldwide.

In many other areas of application, however, developments have only just begun, especially in the production of bioplastics or the generation of energy from renewable raw materials. Future research must first lay the foundation for an actually efficient production method - and biotechnology can make a decisive contribution to this.