Change is famously claimed to be the only constant in human life. And, it is only because of this ‘change’ ushered in by the biotechnology sector today owing to which the entire face of the global economy is transforming. Humans have been harnessing the strategic use of biological processes for over 10,000 years now for some purpose or the other, but all ultimately aim at improving the quality of life. However, it was in the late 1960s and 70s that the use of molecular and cellular technology in scientific agriculture and fermentation gave birth to a concept that was destined to be the pillar of emerging economies in later years- biotechnology.

Coined by Karl Erkey, the term refers to the “Application of the principles of engineering and biological science to create new products from raw materials of biological origin, for example, vaccines or food.”  To put in simple words, biotechnology implies the use of “the use of living organism/s or their product/s to modify or improve human health and human environment.”

Well, if you say physics and chemistry broke all boundaries with industrial innovations, let me tell you, the ground breaking transformations of today and tomorrow are all in the name of biology. Our growing ability to plot, impersonate and manipulate genetic codes of a plethora of biological organisms has opened up a multitude of avenues for the applications of biotechnology ranging from agriculture to medicine, from information technology to warfare. And as one further delves into the issue, the miraculous ways through which biotechnology is revolutionising all aspects of our lives comes to light. Thanks to the 400+ biotechnology drugs and vaccines, millions of those ailing with various cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, heart diseases, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, AIDS and arthritis and so on have benefitted largely since the 1980s. Not only this, have you ever wondered what helps make that filter coffee of yours so delightful? Ever wondered how over the years the cornflakes in your cereal bowl has arose out of genetically modified crop needing fewer and fewer pesticides? Ever wondered how that bread in your fridge rises and stays fresh or how the vanilla you just put in the cake is developed? Well, fact finder alert, more than 70% of the processed foods in the supermarket have been improvised via biotechnological processes. Biotech crops are known to not only have better yields, lower need for chemicals, but they have also helped improve farmers’ bottom lines and boost their standard of living. With obesity rates climbing to epidemic levels worldwide, biotechnology is now all set to create a healthier and more nutritional generation of oils from soybeans, sunflowers and canola. To make animal products safer when they leave farms, more than 100 animal biotech products are presently available in the markets today. Research is underway to develop DNA based animal identification systems capable of accurately tracking any possibilities for any outbreaks of the mad cow disease so as to facilitate quick withdrawal of such affected meats from the grocery stores.

Today, after two decades of success in the fields of healthcare and food production, biotech researchers are now steering towards the manufacturing of common products like fuel and plastic, to develop cleaner, more efficient and sustainable versions of them through renewable resources.  Tackling environmental challenges, products like biodiesel and ethanol, extracted from soybean oils, corn, agricultural residue and even grass clippings are fast emerging as the alternate modes of fuel. Crops engineered through biotechnology not only help boost up farming efficiency, but also provide a softer environmental footprint than traditional agricultural practices. Even when you look around, those fresh clothes you got out of the dryer, are as spotless as new owing to the detergent enzymes developed by biotechnology. Replacing the conventional phosphates that so dearly contributed to water pollution, these enzymes require much lesser energy to be produced.

With population explosion taking place in a number of developing countries, the wildlife today faces a grave threat of losing out their natural habitats to farmlands, thus threatening to wipe out their complete existence. However, with increasing crops yields plus, drought tolerant plants, neither does this impose a question on the ecological balance nor does it put a strain on the resources of the land. Biotechnology’s role even in sectors like biodefense and public defence has been quite instrumental. With DNA fingerprinting transforming criminal investigation and forensic medicine, ‘sentinel’ plants are being developed today that warn of chemical warfare as well as animal pathogens. Biotech enzymes of today are capable of breaking down toxic chemicals, even fatal nerve gases such as sarin, in very effective as well as environmentally benign ways. Such enzymes can be added to water and sprayed at the site of attack.

When it comes to a cross country analysis, Denmark does top the charts of being the most advanced when it comes to biotechnology research followed by Switzerland, Korea, Japan and Germany. However, when we talk about the state in our nation, well biotechnology is emerging as one of the most rapidly growing knowledge-based sectors in the country.  Making huge strides at the global level, India is placed among the top 12 destinations for biotech and is becoming well known for its therapeutic biotech drugs and vaccines. The Indian biotech industry holds about 2 per cent share of the global biotech industry, and, comprising about 800 companies, was valued at US$ 51 billion in 2018, growing at 14.7% yoy. India has emerged as a leading destination for clinical trials, contract research and manufacturing activities owing to the growth in the bio-services sector. The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) along with other government aided institutions like National Biotechnology Board (NBTB) and numerous other autonomous bodies in the biotechnology sector, are all channelizing their efforts together to project India as a global hub for biotech research and business excellence. With the key growth drivers being a growing population, rising demand for treatments, huge investment outlays for medical infrastructure facilities, strong pool of skilled manpower, and cost competitive manufacturing, India has huge potential to outshine as one of the global key players in the field of biotechnology.

Well, all hail the power of biotechnology, for realising the immense potential of the subject, all kinds of cutting-edge research are underway in all continents, even in Antarctica! And even as you read this article, who knows which electrifying breakthrough scientists at some part of the world have achieved right at this moment!

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