50 interesting facts about Biotechnology

Given the multitude of emerging biotechnology, particularly the advancements in DNA synthesis, we can expect to see it all around us.

50 interesting facts about Biotechnology

B0007277 Monoclonal antibodies
Credit: Anna Tanczos. Wellcome Images
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A representation of monoclonal antibodies is binding to antigens on a cell surface. Monoclonal antibodies target a specific antigen and are derived from the same cell and grown in a clonal population (mono-clonal). Whereas, polyclonal antibodies are derived from a mix of antibodies (polyclonal) and, therefore, can bind to multiple antigens. In this image, the antigens are depicted as gold rings, and the binding site of the monoclonal antibodies are gold clefts in the Y-shaped antibody structure.
Digital artwork/Computer graphic
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Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons, see http://images.wellcome.ac.uk/indexplus/page/Prices.html


  1. The use of biotechnology dates as far back as 1919. Roughly 50 years later, researchers used bacterial genes to perform the first successful recombinant-DNA experiment. The field of biotechnology has since reached an astounding height in producing sophisticated medicines, medical devices, diagnostics, biomaterials, and more.
  2. Humans are born without bacteria and acquire them over the first few years of life. Newborn babies get their first exposure to microbes while passing through the birth canal. Studies show that C-section babies have different microbiota from vaginal birth babies, and maybe at higher risk for certain types of allergies and obesity.
  3. About 99.9% of human DNA is the same. It is the other 0.1% that codes for all of the differences that make each person unique.
  4. Humans shares about 98% of their genes with chimpanzees, 92% with mice, 76% with zebrafish, 51% with fruit flies, and 18% with E. coli bacteria.
  5. All the genetic information of living organisms is stored in combinations and sequences of just four molecules – Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine. Differing sequences make up the 24,000 genes found in the human genome.
  6. Each cell in your body contains about two meters of DNA. If laid end-to-end, it would measure 200 billion kilometers. That’s long enough to stretch from Earth to the sun 1,333 times. To put that in perspective, it would take 7.4 days for sunlight to travel the same distance.
  7. Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) can be used to identify sources of new infectious diseases. This technology was used during the SARS epidemic, 2002-03, for the identification of Coronavirus and to trace its origins. It took just one year to identify the disease genes and would have been nearly impossible without PCR.
  8. DNA fingerprinting can be used for paternity testing, identify criminals or exonerate falsely accused, even with the smallest amount of genetic material thanks to PCR. The 300th prisoner exonerated in the history of the United States was due to DNA evidence that showed he was convicted in error.
  9. Biologics, such as vaccines and monoclonal antibodies, are similar or identical to the complex proteins that exist in nature. They are 200 to 1000 times the size of small molecules. Whereas small molecule drugs are less complex and can be reproduced quite easily by chemists in a lab, biologics can’t be reproduced as easily.
  10. Some of the genetic material that makes you, well you, isn’t of human origin. Viruses and bacteria can insert their DNA into your genome by horizontal gene transfer (HGT). Scientists have discovered that HGT is much more common in certain cancer cells than healthy cells.
  11. DNA is also called the “information molecule” because of its ability to pass on genetic information from one cell (or cells) to another. Now there are more reasons to call it that. Researchers have stored as much as 700 terabytes of data in a single gram of DNA, while others have produced read-write DNA technology. If scaled properly, all of the information in the entire world – videos, photos, scientific papers, the Internet, and would fit in the back of a single van, according to computational biologist Nick Goldman.
  12. Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) created a living cell with a synthetic genome made from scratch in 2010 (although it was modeled after a living organism), making it the first living cell on Earth in 3.5 billion years not to have a living parent. The synthetic genome did, however, cost $40 million to build.
  13. Scientists at JCVI used first-generation genome engineering technologies, which resulted in many expensive discoveries for many more dead ends. Don’t write-off the possibility of building fully synthetic organisms due to costs. However, next-generation genome engineering technologies can create one billion similarly sized genomes for just $9,000.
  14. The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, and now boasts a sequencing capacity of over 1 trillion kilobases a year. Unfortunately, the world’s DNA synthesis capacity is less than 230 million kilobases a year. Genetic engineering and synthetic biology applications will become more accessible to everyone with improved technology and lowered costs.
  15. Other technologies will also go a long way in enabling synthetic biology applications. For instance, Autodesk (NASDAQ: ADSK), the company famous for inventing AutoCAD and now revolutionizing 3-D printing platforms, is developing software design tools for the programmable matter in living systems. Currently called Project Cyborg and in beta testing only, scientists will one day be able to design and build human tissues and organs, single-cell organisms with novel metabolic pathways, and programmable nanoparticles. There are many obstacles to overcome before it can be fully functional, but we have to start somewhere.
  16. Spider dragline silk is incredibly strong and flexible, but practically impossible to mass-produce as spiders are very territorial. Researchers at the University of Wyoming solved the problem by inserting the silk-producing gene from spiders into a more docile species: goats. These special dairy animals produce milk containing long strands of spider silk, which can be harvested from the milk in large quantities.
  17. In 1990 chymosin became the first food enzyme produced using recombinant DNA technology. Researchers cloned the chymosin gene from cows into fungi and bacteria, which can produce the enzyme during fermentation in much larger quantities with much higher quality than the stomachs of dairy animals. As much as 90% of the hard cheese produced in the United States is produced with engineered chymosin.
  18. Fermentation is a great way to produce many other foods and chemicals. Renewable oils company, Solazyme, is commercializing an industrial biotechnology platform using heterotrophic algae to produce a wide range of fatty acid-containing oils. One such oil profile is comprised of long-chained fatty acids consisting of eight to ten carbon molecules (C8-C10), which has broad applications in nutrition, lubricants, and biocides. Coconut and palm kernel oils naturally contain the C8-C10 compounds, but only 15% and 8%, respectively. Recently, Solazyme announced that engineers had coaxed algae to produce oil containing nearly 65% of the fatty acid mixture.
  19. Solazyme has also developed and is developing oils for fuels, nutritional ingredients, cosmetics, lubricants, dielectric media, and surfactants. All products provide sustainability and efficiency advantages over similar products sourced from nature (agricultural crops) and petroleum. The company’s first two commercial facilities in Brazil and the United States are expected to begin operations early next year.
  20. Synthetic biology pioneer Amyris has developed yeasts for producing artemisinic acid, the world’s most effective anti-malarial compound, and farnesene, an important building block molecule. Farnesene can be processed into everything from fuels to lubricants, synthetic rubber to cosmetic emollients. In fact, the emollient squalane is only found in limited quantities in nature in shark livers and olive oil. The company’s first commercial facility in Brazil is already beginning to stabilize and grow the small global market for the compound — despite only reaching steady-state operations in July.
  21. Solazyme and Amyris aren’t the only industrial biotech companies exploding onto the scene. Gevo, Butamax, and Green Biologics are producing biobutanol from yeast and bacteria. BioAmber and Genomatica are producing BDO (1,4-butanediol) via fermentation. Joule Unlimited and Algenol are producing ethanol with cyanobacteria. Meanwhile, dozens of other start-ups and developmental companies are pushing forward with their unique microbes and aiming the petroleum industry’s stranglehold on chemical manufacturing.
  22. The human body is teeming with microbes. A number that gets bandied about is that there are 10 times as many bacterial cells as human cells inside you. While no one’s bothered to count them, “the exact number doesn’t matter as much as the idea that there are certainly more bacterial cells in our body than human cells,” Blaser told LiveScience. As humans have evolved, these microbes have evolved with them. A whole lot of viruses call humans home, too.
  23. In 2013, the Human Microbiome Project was completed. It was a five-year effort involving hundreds of scientists to catalog the microbiome of human beings.
  24. Microbes play a critical role in recycling major nutrients in nature due to their ability to add and remove electrons to various compounds. That means fungi and bacteria can do a lot more than produce pharmaceuticals, fuels, beers, and other chemicals — they can reduce compounds, too. Humans have hijacked this capability to remediate environmental spills, clean sewage, mine precious metals, and much more. In fact, microbial mining is the most cost-effective and sustainable way to mine low-grade copper, gold, and uranium ore and has been used for over two decades.
  25. Different types of investigational medicines are explored by medical scientists based largely on what is believed will achieve the desired effect in patients. Small molecules are inherently stable, which means they can be formulated as a pill or liquid. After you swallow them, they are designed to go to your intestines, into your bloodstream, and activate.
  26. The European Union continues to be slow to adopt biotech crops. In 2012, only five countries in the EU planted such crops covering an area of just 129,071 hectares. By comparison, the United States planted 69,500,000 hectares of biotech crops last year.
  27. Several varieties of important crops have been given genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a natural insecticide. The breakthrough led to a 9% drop in worldwide pesticide use from 1996 to 2011, while Bt cotton and Bt corn saved farmers $57 billion in pesticide costs. How was it so successful so quickly? Bt toxin is only poisonous to insects. Fish, birds, humans, and other animals do not have the receptor to which the protein binds.
  28. The overall social and environmental benefits of biotech crops cannot be ignored. In 2011 alone, their use reduced CO2 emissions by 23.1 billion kilograms or the equivalent of removing 10.2 million cars from the world’s roads. They have also saved 108.7 million hectares of land and lifted 15 million rural farmers and their families out of poverty.
  29. When farmers plow their fields to kill weeds, it disturbs the soil and can release carbon into the atmosphere. Biotech crops allow farmers to control weeds without plowing, leaving the carbon in the ground — an estimated 25.9 billion kilograms of car.
  30. Not everything about industrial biotech and genetic engineering is controversy-free. Biotech crops were first commercialized in 1996 and ended the year planted on 1.7 million hectares of land. They finished 2012, covering an area of over 170 million hectares worldwide and a cumulative acreage of over 1.5 billion hectares since 1996.
  31. Pesticide poisoning is common where farmworkers use backpacks to spray chemical pesticides. Workers in hot and humid climates sometimes avoid protective clothing. Biotech crops with a built-in ability to combat insects or diseases can help by reducing pesticide use.
  32. Biotech crops are just the beginning. Oxitec is developing genetically engineered insects designed to control populations of pests that spread disease and destroy crops. A carefully calculated number of sterile insects are released into the environment, where they breed with natural insects to drastically reduce the number of offspring produced.
  33. Some parasitic wasps lay eggs in caterpillars, where they mature into adult wasps. The wasp eggs contain a virus, encoded in the wasp genome, which prevents the caterpillar from rejecting the eggs.
  34. When scientists were first trying to grow cells in culture, they found a great source of them in the ovary of a Chinese hamster. These types of cells grew quickly and could create a number of proteins. The cell line was frozen and became one of the most important components in making biologics.
  35. Large molecule biologics are made using host cells by inserting a gene that produces the desired protein into its DNA. When activated, this gene produces the desired protein. The protein, which ends up being the medicine, is then extracted from host cells and purified for use.
  36. After hundreds of studies and decades of people safely eating biotech foods, scientists around the world say they are just as safe as products obtained through conventional agriculture. Here’s what they say: “No effects on human health.” — World Health Organization“Not riskier than alternative technologies.” — European Commission
    “The risk is in no way higher. … On the contrary, in some cases food from GM plants appears to be superior in respect to health.” — Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities
  37. Of course, we can’t forget about “traditional” biotech. Roche had owned a majority of Genentech since 1990 before acquiring the biotech pioneer in 2009 for $46.8 billion. Nonetheless, it is by far the largest merger and acquisition in the history of the biotech industry. The $15.2 billion acquisition of MedImmune by AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN ) in 2007 ranks a distant second.
  38. Talimogene laherparepvec (T-VEC) was successfully developed by BioVex and Amgen (NYSE: AMGN) to treat melanoma. The immunotherapy is an engineered form of the virus that causes herpes, although it is no longer pathogenic. Instead, it is injected into cancer tissues, which it ruptures, while simultaneously rallying the body’s own immune system. Amgen is now exploring the possibilities of combining T-VEC with other oncology payloads for treating other cancers.
  39. After the cell line is modified to contain the gene that makes the desired protein, cells are grown in a fermenter using a process that is similar to beer fermentation. Initially, there are sometimes only as many cells as can fit in a petri dish or flask. The cells soon multiply to fill bioreactor “fermenter” tanks that can sometimes hold as much as 20,000 liters of cells and growth media.
  40. Over 1016 human immunodeficiency virus genomes are produced daily on the entire planet. As a consequence, thousands of viral mutants arise by chance every day that are resistant to every combination of antiviral compounds in use or in development
  41. You’re probably aware that while some germs can make you sick, others are important for keeping you healthy and fending off infections. Sometimes, the same bacteria can do both. Helicobacter infections are treatable with antibiotics, but there’s a twist: it has been found that the absence of Helicobacter appears to be associated with diseases of the esophagus, such as reflux esophagitis and certain cancers of the esophagus. In other words, Helicobacter may be bad for our stomachs, but good for our throats.
  42. Penicillin was a major breakthrough when Alexander Fleming discovered it in 1928. Antibiotics have enjoyed widespread popularity ever since, but antibiotics overuse has given rise to deadly strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Now, there’s some evidence that antibiotics also increase the risk of developing asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, and obesity.
  43. Probiotics (store-bought) are overrated. The recognition that bacteria can be good for you has spawned something of a craze in probiotic supplements, consisting of live microbes purported to bestow health benefits. Many people take them after a course of antibiotics. But do they actually work? The concept of a probiotic to help reestablish our baseline microbiota after an antibiotic is a good concept. But the idea that, of all thousand species in our bodies, taking a single species that comes from cow or cheese is naïve.
  44. The first gene-modified soybean was introduced in 1995, and now it accounts for half the U.S. crop. While some part of the soybean ends up in 60% of processed foods, these oils and proteins are indistinguishable from those in conventional beans.
  45. The genetic information of viruses can be DNA or RNA; single or double-stranded; one molecule or in pieces.
  46. There are a million virus particles per milliliter of seawater – for a global total of 1030 virions! Lined up end to end, they would stretch 200 million light-years into space. A gene from the Arctic flounder has been transferred to tomatoes to ease their susceptibility to cold. The gene instructs the cell to produce a certain protein. The tomato doesn’t develop fins and smell fishy.
  47. The first human influenza virus strain was isolated in 1933. In 2005, the 1918 pandemic influenza virus strain was constructed from the nucleic acid sequence obtained from victims of the disease.
  48. Viruses are not alive; they are inanimate complex organic matter. They lack any form of energy, carbon metabolism, and cannot replicate or evolve. Viruses are reproduced and evolve only within cells.
  49. The smallest known viruses are circoviruses, which are 20 nanometers (0.00002 millimeters) in diameter. The viral genome is 1,700 nucleotides in length and codes for two proteins.
    Bonus fact: The HIV-1 genome, which is about 10,000 nucleotides long, can exist as 106020 different sequences. To put this number in perspective, there are 1011 stars in the Milky Way galaxy and 1080 protons in the universe.
  50. The biggest known viruses are mimiviruses, which are 400 nanometers (0.0004 millimeters) in diameter. The viral genome is 1,200,000 nucleotides in length and codes for over 900 proteins.
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Also Read: 10 Quick And Interesting DNA Facts That You Probably Didn’t Know

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