Biotechnology deals with techniques of using live organisms or enzymes from organisms to produce products
and processes useful to humans. In this sense, making curd, bread or wine, which are all microbe-mediated
processes, could also be thought as a form of biotechnology. However, it is used in a restricted sense today, to refer to such of those processes which use genetically modified organisms to achieve the same on a larger scale. Further, many other processes/techniques are also included under biotechnology. For example, in vitro fertilisation leading to a ‘test-tube’ baby, synthesising a gene and using it, developing a DNA vaccine or correcting a defective gene, are all part of biotechnology.
The European Federation of Biotechnology (EFB) has given a definition of biotechnology that encompasses both traditional view and modern molecular biotechnology.
The definition given by EFB is as follows:
‘The integration of natural science and organisms, cells, parts thereof, and molecular analogues for products and services’.
Among many, the two core techniques that enabled birth of modern biotechnology are :
(i) Genetic engineering : Techniques to alter the chemistry of genetic material (DNA and RNA), to introduce these into host organisms and thus change the phenotype of the host organism.
(ii) Maintenance of sterile (microbial contamination-free) ambience in chemical engineering processes to enable growth of only the desired microbe/eukaryotic cell in large quantities for the manufacture of biotechnological products like antibiotics, vaccines, enzymes, etc.
Let us now understand the conceptual development of the principles of genetic engineering.
You probably appreciate the advantages of sexual reproduction over asexual reproduction. The former provides opportunities for variations and formulation of unique combinations of genetic setup, some of which may be beneficial to the organism as well as the population. Asexual reproduction preserves the genetic information, while sexual reproduction permits variation. Traditional hybridisation procedures used in plant and animal breeding, very often lead to inclusion and multiplication of undesirable genes along with the desired genes. The techniques of genetic engineering which include creation of recombinant DNA, use of gene cloning and gene transfer, overcome this limitation and allows us to isolate and introduce only one or a set of desirable genes without introducing undesirable genes into the target organism.
Do you know the likely fate of a piece of DNA, which is somehow transferred into an alien organism? Most likely, this piece of DNA would not be able to multiply itself in the progeny cells of the organism. But, when it gets integrated into the genome of the recipient, it may multiply and be inherited along with the host DNA. This is because the alien piece of DNA has become part of a chromosome, which has the ability to replicate. In a chromosome there is a specific DNA sequence called the origin of replication, which is responsible for initiating replication. Therefore, for the multiplication of any alien piece of DNA in an organism it needs to be a part of a chromosome(s) which has a specific sequence known as ‘origin of replication’. Thus, an alien DNA is linked with the origin of replication, so that, this alien piece of DNA can replicate and multiply itself in the host organism. This can also be called as cloning or making multiple identical copies of any template DNA.
Let us now focus on the first instance of the construction of an artificial recombinant DNA molecule. The construction of the first recombinant DNA emerged from the possibility of linking a gene encoding antibiotic resistance with a native plasmid (autonomously replicating circular extra-chromosomal DNA) of Salmonella typhimurium. Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer accomplished this in 1972 by isolating the antibiotic resistance gene by cutting out a piece of DNA from a plasmid which was responsible for conferring antibiotic resistance. The cutting of DNA at specific locations became possible with the discovery of the so-called ‘molecular scissors’– restriction enzymes. The cut piece of DNA was then linked with the plasmid DNA. These plasmid DNA act as vectors to transfer the piece of DNA attached to it. You probably know that mosquito acts as an insect vector to transfer the malarial parasite into human body. In the same way, a plasmid can be used as vector to deliver an alien piece of DNA into the host organism. The linking of antibiotic resistance gene with the plasmid vector became possible with the enzyme DNA ligase, which acts on cut DNA molecules and joins their ends. This makes a new combination of circular autonomously replicating DNA created in vitro and is known as recombinant DNA. When this DNA is transferred into Escherichia coli, a bacterium closely related to Salmonella, it could replicate using the new host’s DNA polymerase enzyme and make multiple copies. The ability to multiply copies of antibiotic resistance gene in E. coli was called cloning of antibiotic resistance gene in E. coli.
You can hence infer that there are three basic steps in genetically modifying an organism —
(i) identification of DNA with desirable genes;
(ii) introduction of the identified DNA into the host;
(iii) maintenance of introduced DNA in the host and transfer of the DNA to its progeny.