TOPICS : Modern biotechnology and food products

Broadly defined, the term “biotechnology” refers to any technological application that uses living organisms or their derivatives to make or modify processes or products for special use. For centuries “traditional biotechnology” used plant and animal breeding techniques such as selection of plants and animal with specific characteristics, while more recently methods such as hybridisation and tissue culture are used to develop higher yielding crops and drought and disease resistant varieties.

Basically, what makes modern biotechnology different from traditional biotechnology is the application of vitro nucleic acid (including recombinant DNA techniques and the direct injection of the nucleic acid into cells or organelles) and the fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family. For the first time, scientists are able to transfer genetic material from one species or genus to another to create viable organisms, thus overcoming natural reproduction and recombination barriers. Genes from cold water fish have, for example, been inserted into tomatoes to enhance their resistance to frost.

Through “modern biotechnology” techniques and processes, scientists have over the last few decades been able to radically alter life forms by extracting and transferring strands of DNA and entire genes, thereby controlling directly the scientific structure of individual living cells. The results of modern biotechnology are termed living modified organism (LMOs). An LMO is a living organism that processes a novel combination of genetic material with the help of modern bio-technology.

To date, scores of animals and plants have been modified to increase their commercial values, produce higher yields, and improve resistance and nutritional value. Common LMOs include agricultural crops that have been genetically modified for greater productivity. LMOs now form the basis of a range of commodities including products such as food, animals, food additives and pharmaceuticals such as drugs and vaccines.

Transgenic plants and animals are widely used by consumers across the globe. For example, tomato was one of the first food products to be genetically modified for consumer use. Developed over the 1980s and released in 1991, this type of tomato was produced by disabling the process of production of specific proteins by inserting back to front version (antisepses) of the gene that produces this protein.

Scientists subsequently created a front resistance tomato plant by adding an antifreeze gene from a fish that can survive in very cold conditions. More recently, biotechnology has been used to create so-called “health giving” tomatoes by transplanting petunia plant gene into their skin, which in turn stimulates production of flavones with antioxidant properties. If biotechnology could be harnessed, Nepal would reap rich dividents in terms of increased productivity and nutritious food products.

Karunarathna is with bio diversity vigilance committee, Sri Lanka