Concept of biotechnology
The term ‘Biotechnology’ may sound futuristic, but it is nearly as old as civilization itself. We have begun growing crops and raising animals 10,000 years ago to provide a stable supply of food and clothing. We have been using the biological processes of microorganisms for 6,000 years to make useful food products such as bread, cheese and to preserve dairy products. The term ‘biotechnology’ has been used to signify activities relating to biological process and technologies. Traditional biotechnology and its development processes were entirely experiential. It was aimed at understanding the mechanisms for improving every activity from farming to food processing. Early farmers selected particular plants to grow crops and saved their seeds for the following season. Over the years, they bred the varieties of seeds they found best and learned how to grow them more efficiently through techniques of irrigation and weed control. The process of choosing certain seeds for their expressed characteristics and learning how to irrigate and rotate the crops was the genesis of earlier days of biotechnology.
The expression ‘modern biotechnology’ can be differentiated form traditional use of biological process which was commonly termed as classical biotechnology. Even though biotechnology has been in practice for thousands of years, the technological explosion occurred only in the twentieth century. Various branches of science like physics, chemistry, engineering, computer application and information technology helped revolutionise the development of life sciences and it ultimately resulted in the evolution of modern biotechnology. Unlike classical biotechnology, modern biotechnology operates at the molecular level of life. It is modern in the sense that the techniques are applied mainly to cells and Molecules. Life at the molecular level is the same among every species from humans to bacterium. Every living thing on earth is built with molecules which are similar and there exists hardly any difference among humans, fishes, trees, worms and bacterium at molecular level. Only the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) coding is different among various species and it ultimately makes every living thing what it is.
The term biotechnology for the purpose of understanding can be divided in to two ‘bio’ and ‘technology’. ‘Bio’ means the use of biological processes and ‘technology’ means to solve problems or make useful products. Biotechnology is a collection of many different technologies. It is a highly multidisciplinary subject. It involves the contribution of scientists from various fields like biology, chemistry, engineers, statisticians, mathematicians, and information technology. It also involves contributions from financial, legal, and managerial experts. It is a rapidly growing technological terrain, recognised by its significant contribution to life science research like the agricultural, medical and pharmaceutical sectors. In order to have a better understanding of the major issues raised by biotechnology, we must have some grasp of what biotechnology and bioscience are. The concepts and jargons frequently used in biotechnology are not familiar to legal researchers. This chapter makes an attempt to familiarise the common concepts and terminologies used in biotechnology for the better understanding of legal issues relating to biotechnology and research data protection.
The simple definition of ‘biotechnology’ is the commercialization of cell biology”. Biotechnology is an umbrella term that covers various techniques for using he properties of living organisms to make products or provide services. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defines biotechnology as: “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products for specific use.” This definition includes medical and industrial applications as well as many of the tools and techniques that are common in agriculture and food production.
The developments of modern biotechnology
The era of modern biotechnology is believed to have started with the discovery of the microscope. The path of genetic manipulation can be said to have started in 1665 when the English scientist Robert Hook published a review of some observations he had made while peering through a microscope. He saw tiny spaces surrounded by walls while he was observing samples of cork. He is the one who coined the word “cell.” Ten years later Anton van Leeuwenhoek designed the microscope with magnifying power as great as 270 times. He was the first person to observe and describe micro-organisms which he called “very little animalcules”. He was also the first person to observe the “bacteria” which according to him were twenty five times smaller than the blood cells. He also discovered the presence of sperms in semen in human and other animals.
Even though cells were found everywhere from plants to animals, nobody came up with the idea that the cells were fundamental to life. More than 70 years later, two Germen biologists Matthias Schleiden and Theodore Schwann introduced the cell theory which says that all living organism are made of cells. According to them cells are the basic structural and functional units of a living organisms. The research on cells further led to the discovery of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) which is believed to be the heart of life. The area of biotechnology developed as a result of man’s increasing desire to know the mechanisms that maintain living organisms.
The landmark moment in the history of science occurred on April 25, 1953 when James D. Watson and Francis Crick published “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” in the journal, Nature. Watson and Crick, along with their colleague Maurice Wilkins, received the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for “their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.
The discovery of double helix DNA structure was a huge controversy during that period. In fact the crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, who generated the legendary “photograph 51” using the X-ray diffraction photo, was the first one to reveal DNA’s double-helix structure. The controversy was that the Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray crystallography image, “photo”, was shown to Watson and Crick without her knowledge and consent. The image which actually indicated the doublehelix structure of DNA, was not the discovery of Watson and Crick which earned them the Nobel Prize. They could not have proposed their celebrated structure of the DNA without access to the experimental results obtained by Rosalind Franklin, particularly her crucial X-ray diffraction photograph. She was known as the dark lady of DNA.
The major development in medical biotechnology was the discovery and development of antibiotics. The first antibiotic was ‘moldy soybean curd’ used by the Chinese almost 2,500 years ago to treat skin infections. The Sudanese-Nubian civilization of Africa used a form of the same micro organism which created tetracycline as an antibiotic as early as 350 B.C.41 The traces of tetracycline have been found in human skeletal remains of ancient Sudanese Nubia. The distribution of tetracycline in bones was only understandable after exposure to tetracyclinecontaining materials in the diet of these ancient people. In the middle ages in Europe, tinctures made from plant extracts or cheese curds were used to ward off infection. The tetracycline as a large family of generic antibiotics was discovered as natural products by Benjamin Minge Duggar in 1948.
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