In this article we will discuss about the areas and scope of plant biotechnology.
The term ‘Biotechnology’ was coined in 1917 by a Hungarian Engineer, Karl Ereky, to describe a process for large scale production of pigs. The word biotechnology indicates the interaction between the science of biology and technology. Biotechnology has been broadly defined as, ‘the development and utilisation of biological processes, forms and systems for obtaining maximum benefits to human and other forms of life’.
According to the definition adopted by the European Federation of Biotechnology, created in 1978, ‘Biotechnology makes it possible, through an integrated application of knowledge and techniques of biochemistry, microbiology, genetics and chemical engineering, to draw benefit, at the technological level, from the properties and capacities of microorganisms and cell cultures.
Biotechnology offers the possibility of producing, from widely available renewable resources, substances and compounds essential to life.
Modern biotechnology enables an organism to produce a totally new product which the organism does not or cannot produce normally through the incorporation of the technology of ‘Genetic engineering’. The knowledge of totipotency of plant cell, different aspects of plant tissue culture techniques, cell fusion techniques along with the use of rDNA technology has developed a new area of ‘Plant biotechnology’.
Areas and Branches of Plant Biotechnology:
Many areas of biotechnology have developed through the interaction between various branches of biology and engineering; biochemistry, biophysics, cell biology, chemistry, embryology, ecology, microbiology, genetics, molecular biology and immunology—all these disciplines of biology and on the engineering side chemical and biochemical engineering have helped to develop the different areas and branches of modern biotechnology (Table 15.1).
Recombinant DNA Techniques and Genetic Engineering:
The knowledge of molecular biology has provided the ability to extract a gene coding for a desired product and transfer it to another organism which has helped in production of useful proteins, hormones, vaccines, enzymes, etc. by some microorganisms, plant cells or animal cell cultures.
The use of this technique is essential for four reasons:
First, large scale production of desired product;
Second, supply of natural source may be limited;
Third, the purity of naturally available material is doubtful;
Fourth, is the cost of the natural product may be higher.
Plant Cell Culture Techniques:
The ability to culture plant cells on a large scale, either for the production of biomass or in order to extract the desired product from cell cultures (high yielding), has become a highly desirable technology. Plant cells are important and rich source of high value drugs and many secondary metabolites. With the advancement of this technology the production becomes more economic to produce low cost and high volume materials.
Laboratory scientists can clone a novel gene, discover a new antibiotic or enzyme catalysed process but it requires to transfer the knowledge to the scale of operation required to make a useful product in significant quantity.
Harvesting, pre-treatment, filtration of the raw material, reactor design and their control, recovery/reuse of biocatalyst or organism, product extraction and analysis—all these require the help of chemical or biochemical engineers.
Waste Treatment and Utilisation:
The treatment of sewage and waste water from domestic and industrial sources is the largest biotechnological industry. Wastes and byproducts of activities in agriculture, forestry and food industry can be used for various purposes, particularly to produce energy. Many types of wastes are suitable for biological treatment and some may even yield useful products.
Except anaerobic or aerobic waste treatment, biodegradation is the process by which waste materials such as oil spill, herbicides, pesticides, etc. are degraded by the action of microbial systems.
Traditionally, fermentation has meant the production of potable alcohol from carbohydrates. However, fermentation—the application of microbial metabolism to transform simple raw materials into valuable products—can produce useful substances e.g. citric acid, antibiotics, biopolymer and single cell proteins. The potential of this process is endless and varied as microorganisms themselves.
Biotechnology can provide two solutions towards the problems of fuels in our world today—one is new kind of fuels, another is alternative carbon feedstock. Sugarcane waste can be used as source for alcoholic fuels. Animal sludge can be used for bio- gas production, some of aquatic herbs (Eichornea) are also used for biogas production— which is alternative source of fuels.
The most aesthetically pleasing biotechnological fuel would be hydrogen derived from the bio-photolysis of water, which is based on the combination of the photo-systems of plants with bacterial-derived hydrogenase enzymes and light.
Enzymes and Bio-catalysis:
Recently great interest has been aroused in extending the use of enzymes in food processing, chemical production, analytical and diagnostic systems, and in the treatment of disease.
This modern interest is largely a result of the greater understanding of the function and nature of enzymes and also the new technologies involved in the handling of biocatalysts, particularly their immobilisation so that they may be fixed in a reactor or on a sensor probe.
Living plants used as bio-fertilizers have become a means of supplementing the availability of the scarce source of chemical fertilizers and also enriching the soil. Leguminous plants enrich the fertility of soil due to presence of Rhizobiunv, other bio-fertilizers are Azotobacter, Azospirillum and Azolla; other phosphate solubilizing microorganisms and mycorrhizal fungi have also found a place in bio-fertilizer technology.
Scope and Prospects of Plant Biotechnology:
Each and every organism performs its function within its optimum limits but the excitement of modern biotechnology lies in the fact that the application of different scientific methods (like genetic engineering) can enhance the natural capabilities of production much more as well as miracle can happen i.e., bacteria can produce mammalian hormone, and also plant cell can produce plastic granules.
Biotechnology in Agriculture:
Biotechnology is making a new ground in the food or agriculture area. Different plant cell, tissue and organ culture techniques can help in micro-propagation of different kinds of plants for different purposes, phytomass or biomass production to get some alkaloids or secondary metabolites, anther cultures are used for haploid production, gametic and somatic cell/tissue cultures are used for gametoclonal or somaclonal variation or for production of artificial seeds.
Genetic engineering and transformation techniques have helped in production of transgenic plants carrying desirable traits like disease resistance, insect resistance, herbicide resistance and also may be used for increasing photosynthetic efficiency, nitrogen fixing ability, improved storage proteins, hybrid crops, etc.
Protoplast culture and fusion have helped in production of somatic hybrids between sexually incompatible species, permitting transfer of desirable traits from wild or unrelated crop species to our cultivated crop plants.
Biotechnology in Industry and Medicine:
Industrial microbiology is another area receiving major attention of biotechnologists; many pharmaceutical drugs and chemicals are now being produced in microbial cells in larger quantity utilizing techniques of genetic engineering. In the field of medicine, insulin and interferon synthesized by bacteria are already in the market.
A large number of vaccines for immunization against deadly diseases, DNA probes and monoclonal antibodies for diagnosis of various diseases, human growth hormone and other pharmaceutical drugs for treatment of diseases are being produced through microbes. Gene therapy for some lethal diseases and DNA fingerprinting or autoantibody fingerprinting techniques are great boon in medical and forensic science.
Biotechnology and Environment:
Biotechnology is also being used for dealing with environmental problems like pollution control, depletion of natural resources for nonrenewable energy, restoration of degraded lands, biodiversity conservation. Bio-pesticides, bio-fertilisers and biosensors (for detection of metals), cleaning of metals and spilled oils, bio-monitoring in different industries are all the result of biotechnological developments.
Biotechnology in Protein and Metabolic Engineering:
Protein engineering, metabolic engineering are also the recently developed major areas of biotechnology. Protein engineering helps the production of superior enzymes and storage proteins with the help of computer aided protein modelling.
Biotechnology research has helped in the production of metabolites at the industrial scale by the use of computer aided introduction of different genes and regulatory elements called metabolic engineering. In the area of bioinformatics recently databases are available through information network through-out the world which help the development of bio-technological research in many areas.