Biotechnology is currently considered one of the technologies of the future and has one of the most promising scenarios for the coming decades. Despite being time and capital-intensive, the global biotechnology industry has shown an extremely high growth rate over the last few years. This is due, among other factors, to its vast potential to provide new solutions to the problems facing humanity today in areas such as health, agriculture, food, and the environment, among others.

The history of biotechnology is very old as, since the beginning of the development of civilizations, mankind has found ways to use organisms to develop different new products. This initially occurred empirically and without a knowledge of the mechanisms of action of such processes. This is how foods such as cheese and bread, and drinks such as wine and beer have been produced; using microorganisms such as yeasts and bacteria, to transform the products.

Modern biotechnology includes the use of different techniques, already with the knowledge of the processes and mechanisms involved, which allow the use and transformation of products from the use of organisms. Today all industries use biotechnology to optimize their processes, obtain better new products, or offer more efficient services. Biotechnology can be defined as the set of techniques that involve the manipulation of living organisms or their subcellular components, to produce substances, develop processes, or provide services.

Biotechnology products and applications

Pharmaceutical Industry: Antibiotics and other drugs, such as insulin and interferon, Vaccines, such as Hepatitis B

Food industry: Dairy products, such as yogurt, fermented milk, and cheese, Additives and sweeteners, such as glutamate and aspartame, Organic acids, such as citric acid, for soft drinks and candies

Alcoholic beverages: Enzymes for the manufacture of bread, cookies, juices, sausages, etc.

Textile and paper industry: Enzymes to soften and discolor fabrics, and to modify fibers, Dyes

Detergent industry: Stain Removal Enzymes

Fuels: Alcohol as a biofuel

Plastics: Biodegradable plastics from starch or bacteria

Services: Treatment of sewage, effluents, and garbage, Bioremediation (cleaning of soil and contaminated water)

Agriculture: Fertilizers (compost) and biological pesticides, plant crops resistant to disease and pests, tolerant of adverse environmental conditions, or providing better food

The global biotechnology industry

The biotechnology industry consists of the development, manufacture, and marketing of new products based on advanced biotechnology research. This industry is extremely complex, as the development of its products requires a high level of research, development, and innovation (R&D&I), is capital and time-intensive and involves a strong component of commercial risk.

As a consequence, the main asset within it is intellectual property. Startups are usually based on innovative products or new processes that are the result of academic research and often have long starting periods, with very little profit and high fixed costs, so they must obtain capital backing. Because of this, it is very common for large conventional companies to enter the biotechnology market through acquisitions of small companies, thus obtaining intellectual property rights.

It is also important to note that, by its nature, the biotechnology industry has been organized into innovation clusters. A cluster is the concentration of interconnected companies, typically in a geographic area or in an application sector, which includes input and technology suppliers, academic and research groups, as well as consumers and applicators, and even application sector-oriented service companies. A cluster is always formed to simultaneously accelerate scientific development, technological development, and business and economic development in a specific area.

Biotechnology in Mexico

Biotechnology in Mexico about research, development, and commercialization is in a phase of expansion and diversification. Currently, new applications are being explored in both human and veterinary health, agricultural modernization, environmental protection, biofuels, and other areas. In addition, Mexico offers an attractive opportunity for the development of commercial biotechnology, since it has great biodiversity, a trained workforce, and competitive costs, as well as free trade agreements with 45 countries, a privileged geographical position, and an accessible legal and regulatory framework.

The biotechnology industry in Mexico has a great potential for growth because the country has a series of elements that constitute key factors for the development of this industry, among which are great biodiversity of ecosystems and species, highly trained human capital, and internationally competitive manufacturing costs. Mexico's regulatory framework for biotechnology is one of the most advanced in the world, as it contains important biosafety provisions and provides high levels of certainty regarding intellectual property rights.

Biotechnology in Mexico.
Biotechnology in Mexico has great advances. Image by felixioncool from Pixabay

Engineering of biological processes

Biology process engineering deals with the ability to ensure the implementation of biotechnological processes. It examines the technologies, equipment, and practical methods that ensure the acquisition of specific products and processes.

It also considers the conditions necessary for the implementation of the biotechnological process: for example, preparation and supply of water, air, steam, substances, recycling of wastewater generated in the process, as well as ensuring clean conditions of production premises.

Nowadays, it is typical in biotechnology plants that personnel must link process knowledge with the conditions of good manufacturing practice. Today, such processes often need to be validated, where process engineering and technological knowledge merge with modern quality management.

Specificity of bioprocesses

Microorganism cells are living microorganisms that require special conditions for growth and biosynthesis;

The cells grow in a culture medium (i.e., medium), which may just as well promote the proliferation of other unwanted cells as a manifestation of infection, contamination, non-sterility, or poor aseptic conditions. Consequently, in such processes, special attention must be paid to the observance of sterile conditions;

Cells are sensitive to external conditions (T, pH, O2) and can be easily damaged if these and other conditions (eg mixing, aeration) are not observed;

The products formed in biosynthesis are usually dispersed in the culture medium;

Many by-products may be formed in the process, which are usually separated from the rest of the environment during the product release stages;

Bioprocess technical equipment is specific and relatively more expensive than, for example, chemical technological processes;

Personnel employed in biotechnological production need specific knowledge that cannot be transferred from other areas of production without additional training.

Advantages of processes

Cells of microorganisms can be used to perform reactions that are difficult to perform by chemical methods (such as penicillin);

Cells can convert natural biomass (such as agricultural waste) into valuable products;

Large and ever-increasing diversity in the production of products using microorganism cells;

Cells can be modified to produce certain products;

New products obtained by biotechnological methods usually have a high added value.

Genetic engineering

With the development of modern biotechnology and different molecular techniques called recombinant DNA, a different way to access and use genetic diversity has been established. Recombinant DNA technology allows direct modification of DNA through the use of particular proteins called restriction enzymes. These proteins can be considered as "the molecular scissors" since they can cut the DNA strands into portions and at specific sites.

Another essential component for the production of recombinant DNA molecules is ligases. As their name suggests these enzymes bind separate portions of DNA and can therefore be considered "the glue" between these molecules. Thus, the ability to cut, modify, and paste DNA molecules, key activities of genetic engineering, is what makes it possible to create recombinant DNA.

Recombinant DNA technology has several uses, one of which is the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) also known as transgenic organisms. This application of biotechnology allows us to access and use relatively more precisely the diversity of genes but, at the same time, brings new uncertainties and therefore must be used under certain guidelines that guarantee its safe use.

Biotechnology applied to aquaculture

Have you ever wondered where the fish you find on the freezer shelves at the mall or your local market comes from and then you take it home to prepare it with a delicious recipe?

One of the first answers that may come to mind is that it was caught at sea with the help of fishing nets and a small boat, or perhaps it was caught in a river or pond. However, a large percentage of the fish we consume comes from fish farms or aquaculture - yes, just as in chicken, pig, goat, or cow farms, humans feed the fish until they reach an adequate size for consumption, which contributes to the constant demand for food derived from population growth.

Fish farming or aquaculture has been one of the world's fastest-growing food production activities since 1960. In 2013, aquaculture represented 67% of total fish production and only 33% came from fishing; and of that percentage of farmed fish, 5% was marine species. For their production, the main marine fish farming units are floating cages - literally, fish pens that are installed floating in the sea! Floating cages have several technical advantages (for example, the temperature and salinity of the water do not have to be controlled with devices) and economic advantages, which make them more profitable than land-based farming units.

Despite this, one of their main disadvantages is that since they are in the sea, it is not easy to control diseases and parasites can grow very large when they come across a lot of fish in the cage. Currently, two of the factors that have most favored the increase of fish diseases are climate change and pollution in the seas. In addition to this, in tropical areas, there are more parasite species and infection levels are usually higher than in cold areas, these situations put marine fish production at risk.

How is a transgenic plant produced?

The production of a transgenic organism, for example, a plant, involves several stages. First, we must identify the portion of DNA that we want to insert. This is usually a gene that provides a specific function, for example, a gene that codes for a protein that provides resistance to an insect or tolerance to a herbicide. Once the gene has been identified, it is cut from its carrier organism, using restriction enzymes, and stuck with the necessary DNA sequences so that it can function in another organism.

These DNA sequences necessary for a gene to function are known as regulatory sequences because they indicate when the expression of the gene with which they are associated begins and ends. In addition, sequences of a baker gene must be added to allow us to subsequently select the cells that were successfully transformed. Once we have the complete transgenic construction, i.e. the gene(s) of interest, and it's/their regulatory sequences, we must insert this construction into cells of the recipient organism, which is the organism we want to transform. There are different methods of insertion, roughly we can divide them into physical methods and biological methods.

Among the physical methods, the most used is bioplastics, while in biological methods the vector is a virus or a bacterium. The next step consists of detecting which of the hundreds or thousands of cells exposed to the chosen insertion method have received the transgenic construction in their genetic material. For this purpose, these cells are cultivated in a medium with a certain substance, for example, an antibiotic.

The antibiotic used must correspond to the marker gene within the transgenic construct. Thus, in this medium, only the cells that received the transgene properly survive and the transgene is functional, since the marker gene confers resistance to the antibiotic, while the rest of the cells die and thus we can select the transformed cells. Finally, we must carry out the culture of these cells in a medium with the necessary hormones so that cell differentiation occurs and we obtain a complete plant.

Who works in biotechnology?

Biotechnology is a relatively new field of science. Its solutions are increasingly affecting areas that are important to humanity. A biotechnologist is not essentially the same as a biologist. Sufficient basic knowledge in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and engineering (equipment, processes, and apparatus) is required for the acquisition of biotechnology.

It is typical that specialists in various fields - biotechnologists, chemists, engineers, programmers - work on the implementation of biotechnology projects. Biotechnology projects require the synthesis of life sciences and engineering knowledge. In this case, the cooperation of various specialists is required. It can only be successful if a communicative base of appropriate knowledge is established with each other.