Biotechnological processes, products and services play a role in almost all areas of everyday life - be it in modern detergents, in food production or in the treatment of diabetes. Biotechnology is one of the key technologies of the 21st century and will be of great help in solving global ecological and economic challenges. Like other key technologies, biotechnology requires specialists to research and apply innovative processes. In this article, Dr. Ulrich Gerth from Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering.
Biotechnological processes have been known for thousands of years
It is not known when mankind began to use biotechnological processes. But the beneficial properties of microorganisms, such as baker's yeast or the lactic acid bacterium, have been known to mankind for thousands of years.
However, it was not until the second half of the 19th century that mankind gained an understanding of how microorganisms work. The French biochemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur was one of the first to recognize the connection between the effects of microorganisms on the one hand and the material changes that we can perceive on the other. The Hungarian engineer and economist Karl Ereky, on the other hand, first used the term “biotechnology” in 1919. Analogous to the Stone and Iron Ages, he foresaw a biotechnological age. That prophecy seems to be coming true today.
Thanks to the enormous gains in knowledge in the biological sciences in recent decades, we not only understand how microorganisms work, we can also adapt them to our needs. For example, since the 70s, science has been able to transfer genetic material between organisms in a targeted manner, even across species boundaries (genetic engineering). This led to the first human insulin coming onto the market in 1982 as the first genetically engineered drug.
Today, the entirety of all genetic information, the so-called genome, is known for numerous species - from simple bacteria to humans. This fundamental knowledge of the blueprint of life makes biotechnology one of the key technologies of the 21st century.
What is biotechnology?
According to the definition of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), biotechnology is “the application of science and technology to living organisms, parts of them, their products or models of them, for the purpose of modifying living or non-living matter for the purpose of expanding knowledge, for production of goods and for the provision of services”. In other words: The possible uses of biotechnology are very diverse.
It is a so-called cross-sectional technology because it is not only based on biology and biochemistry. A large number of other scientific disciplines, such as physics, chemistry, process engineering, materials science and computer science are used. Biotechnology does not only research whole organisms such as bacteria, plants, animals or humans. Individual cells and enzymes or other parts and products of the organism are also the subject of research and application.
A theory of colors has emerged to distinguish between these different areas of application: A distinction is made between red, green and white biotechnology. Red means medicine, green means agriculture and white means industry.
Bio-based plastics, biofuels or gene transfer: biotechnological answers to our problems
If we look at the problems humanity will have to deal with now and in the future, quite a few things come together. Biotechnology contributes and will do a great deal in the future to counteract these problems. Four challenges are to be considered here as examples:
- Combating infectious diseases and pandemics
- Food crises due to the increasing world population
- pollution and climate change
- Aging society and thus increasing medical costs for society
Louis Pasteur put it in a nutshell: "Luck favors the prepared". Only excellent training options ensure a worthwhile future for us. Biotechnology is one of the most important building blocks for the future. This has been impressively demonstrated in the recent past with the development and application of mRNA-based new corona vaccines. And this is just one example of many.dr Ulrich Gerth, Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering
How can biotechnology help?
Combating infectious diseases and pandemics
A global genomic surveillance system is needed to better combat pandemics such as Covid-19 or infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. This is already in Germany and international Consensus. Here, biotechnology combines with computer science and collects all biochemical data and information about a virus, such as e.g. B. gene sequences or variants. In doing so, she identifies new pathogens, assesses the risk of mutations and strives for non-discriminatory access to data and information. The system also collects clinical information on the severity of the disease progression or the vaccination status. The challenge here lies not only in researching new pathogens, but also in the global networking of information in real time.
Food crises due to the increasing world population
Due to the increasing global population from approx. 6,7 billion people in 2008 to approx. 8,3 billion people in 2030 on the one hand and the globally limited agricultural area on the other hand, there will be an increasing demand for food in the immediate future; the same applies to the demand for crude oil-based industrial chemicals, since oil will not be available in infinite quantities at low cost. For both there are approaches in green biotechnology for the more efficient use of natural resources.
An important technology in modern green biotechnology is e.g. B. Agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer. With this genetic engineering method, individual hereditary factors (genes) are transferred from cells of one organism to cells of another living being.
Somatic hybridization (also called protoplast fusion or cell fusion) is another important method in green biotechnology. It allows to combine desired traits from different parent plants.
pollution and climate change
Heavy metals in soil and drinking water, leachate from landfills, dirty laundry – why not get help from nature?
So-called biosensors, which are used to detect pollutants in water, air and soil, are an important tool in environmental biotechnology. Researchers are developing systems that can react to environmental toxins either on the basis of organisms or enzymes.
Another important contribution of biotechnology to environmental protection are the so-called biofuels. They are mostly made from plants and can substitute the fossil fuels diesel, petrol and natural gas.
The biotechnological production of polymers or plastics also contributes to protecting our planet. The development of biodegradable bio-based plastics is progressing. This means that petrochemical processes for the production of certain polymers can be replaced or new polymers with new properties can be developed.
Aging society and thus increasing medical costs for society
In addition to the increase in world population, the aging society in western nations is also a concern. An aging society causes multiple chronic diseases and dramatically increasing costs (approx. 85 percent of health expenditure). This far exceeds the costs caused by injuries or acute life-threatening illnesses.
Today's medicine mostly focuses on treating symptoms. The causes of an illness and thus a cure are less important. That should change in the near future. Trends in red biotechnology are protection (near future) and regeneration (distant future).
And this is how medical care could be advanced with the help of biotechnology:
- Regenerative medicine – healing instead of alleviating / using active ingredients that activate the body's own stem cells
- Personalized medicine replaces population-based medicine
- Simplification of drug administration (e.g. implantable pumps)
- Use of information technology to improve recovery monitoring or the development of laboratory technology
- Improved imaging and navigation of surgical instruments / from minimally invasive to non-invasive
- Time and cost savings in drug development
Promotion of young talent for biotechnology
Companies are finding it increasingly difficult to find suitable candidates for the respective biotechnology area. We are looking for natural scientists and engineers, but also biotech mechanical engineers, process engineers or mechatronics and computer scientists. Especially the innovation drivers, small and medium-sized companies, are left behind. you are missing e.g. B. the resources for “global recruiting”.
The motivation of students should be high. Because jobs in biotechnology meet a number of criteria that are very popular with young people. National and international surveys have shown that a nature-conscious approach to the environment and the meaningfulness of their work are important to them when choosing a career.
Also for Dr. Ulrich Gerth considers the promotion of young talent in this field to be an important key. “Our knowledge-based future can only be shaped successfully through research and invention. There cannot be enough educational opportunities for this,” he made clear at the zdi community event in summer 2022, where he was invited as a specialist speaker.
The zdi community has numerous offers for schoolchildren who want to immerse themselves in the world of biotechnology.