As we are moving forward in the 21st century, biotechnologies have also risen to importance more and more, becoming increasingly vital in our daily lives, especially now as the world is suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientists and researchers have made outstanding contributions to this field, resulting in significant improvements. From vaccine development to gene sequencing, biotechnology has only paved its way ahead and been a boon to every one of us.
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Biotechnology breakthroughs 2021
Some of the breakthroughs of biotechnology in 2021 are listed below in this article.
1. Synthetic DNA
The Covid-19 pandemic has underlined the necessity of biotechnology more than ever. For the Covid-19 research, DNA synthesis is one of the cornerstones. Synthetic DNA is utilized in genomic investigations of the virus that causes Covid-19, which aids in tracking the infection’s spread and evolution. In partnership with a researcher from Professor Troels Skrydstrup’s group, Professor Kurt Gothelf’s group has developed a distinct way to rapidly and easily produce the volatile building blocks instantly before they are to be used, thereby making DNA production more efficient. The DNA sequences produced are also called oligonucleotides and these need an automated way for chemical production. This method uses phosphoramidites, which are chemical molecules that are fragile unless kept at the ideal temperature of -20 degrees Celsius. The professors collaborated to create a simple but operative technology that allows the manufacturing of phosphoramidites to be mechanized and integrated directly into the DNA synthesis apparatus, ultimately eliminating the need for manual synthesis, which can take up to 12 hours. Nucleosides are flushed via a resin in the method of creating phosphoramidites, which could be fully incorporated into an automated process in the DNA synthesis equipment. The resin guarantees that the nucleosides are quickly phosphorylated, resulting in the conversion of nucleosides to phosphoramidites in a matter of minutes, thus resulting in DNA synthesis.
2. Development of Vaccines
As we know, how coronavirus was once related to milder infections like the common cold, however, three variants—Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS-CoV), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), and SARS-CoV-2—are now linked to significant illness and mortality in infected people, resulting in the havoc or global pandemics around the world. It is critical to formulate new and long-term strategies for stopping the virus’s global spread. Thus, with the help of biotechnology, many researchers and scientists have been able to formulate reliable vaccines. Many synthetic biologists have identified a new approach to increase the manufacturing yields of protein-based vaccinations, perhaps increasing access to life-saving medicines. Recently, a major contribution was done in the development of COVID-19 vaccines by Dr. Katalin Karikó, who also received “2022 Vilcek Prize for Excellence in Biotechnology.” Karikó showed that altering nucleosides, which are the building blocks of messenger RNA (mRNA), makes mRNA safe for use in vaccines against pathogenic agents. Thanks to her discoveries on the stabilizing impact of altering nucleosides in mRNA, scientists were able to construct mRNA vaccines for COVID-19, most significantly those developed by Pfizer and Moderna. In clinical testing, the vaccines showed 94 percent effectiveness in avoiding symptomatic sickness, and they are now being used across the United States to help stop the pandemic.
3. Testing and Tracing for COVID-19
Despite recent disclosures of promising phase III data on Covid-19 vaccines, the disease-causing virus — SARS-CoV-2 — is expected to remain with us for at least a few months. The only way to offer good healthcare and stop the spread of the disease is to identify infected people. Standard clinical testing methods frequently produce false results, and traditional sequencing approaches are time-consuming and costly. Recently, Jeremy Edwards, director of the Computational Genomics and Technology (CGaT) Laboratory at The University of New Mexico, and his other colleagues developed a chip that makes genome sequencing for viruses like COVID-19 much easier and faster. Scientists used a tiled genome panel they designed for cheap and effective whole viral genome resequencing to fast and precisely resequence the viral genome from eight clinical samples which were obtained from patients who tested positive SARS-CoV-2 in Wyoming as part of the study. Eventually, they were able to identify 95 percent of each sample’s genome with an efficiency of more than 99.9%. Edwards, who is a professor in the UNM Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology even stated that this new chip would allow for faster and more accurate tracing of COVID and other viruses, including new variants.
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4. 4D printing and Tissue Engineering
The idea of 4D printing is gaining popularity in the creation of self-healing substances for tissue engineering and manufacturing applications, but it has seen limited use in agriculture and farming applications. 4D materials when exposed to certain environments change their shape but recently available materials are of low compatibility with cells. However, the research team – led by Eben Alsberg, created new 4D materials based on gelatin-like hydrogels that alternate shape in reaction to water and are cell-compatible and recyclable, making them ideal choices for enhanced tissue engineering. The hydrogels may also maintain very high cell densities, allowing for a dense seeding of cells. In addition, they also discovered that the system can be calibrated to control the time and degree of the shape alteration. The researchers were able to implant bone marrow stem cells at a very high density in the hydrogel without destroying them, which is a huge advancement in bioengineering. Furthermore, this hydrogel’s 4D bioprinting was also used to create novel configurations for more complicated 4D constructions.
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5. Gene Editing
For the first time, researchers have been able to prove that when specific human endogenous retroviruses or HERVs which are found throughout our genome are activated, it severely impairs brain development. With the help of biotechnologies, scientists were able to have a better understanding of HERV processes and functions. The researchers produced a particular group of human endogenous retroviruses in human stem cells and created neurons using CRISPR technology. These viral components then triggered specific genes linked to brain development, which also comprised traditional developmental factors. Thus, cortical neurons in the cerebral cortex completely lost their functionality.
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6. Gene Sequencing
Over the last decade, large-scale whole genome sequencing technology, which determines an individual’s whole set of genetic material, has advanced rapidly. Now, for the first time in five years, the center sequenced the genomes of 3,219 patients, leading to molecular diagnosis for 1,287 individuals with uncommon disorders (40 percent). More than 750 genes were revealed to have harmful mutations, and 17 new disease genes were uncovered. Patients with hereditary metabolic illnesses, uncommon epilepsies, and primary immunological deficiencies have benefited from personalized treatment in some situations. A major project is currently ongoing in Sweden’s healthcare industry to replicate a comparable working technique on a larger scale. Karolinska Institutet and Karolinska University Hospital, for example, have formed a joint center for precision medicine (PMCK) to integrate and develop a precision medicine partnership. This technique has also led to the discovery of other previously undiscovered disease genes, opening up new avenues for further investigation of pathogenic pathways.
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7. Quantum Microscope
Another major biotechnology breakthrough is the creation of a quantum microscope that will allow us to see what was once impossible. According to Professor Bowen from Quantum Optics Lab,” This breakthrough will spark all sorts of new technologies — from better navigation systems to better MRI machines, you name it.” Adding to this, it is the first entanglement-based sensing device to outperform the best currently available technology. The capability of the team’s quantum microscope to break through a ‘hard barrier’ in conventional microscopy based on light was a big achievement. This quantum entanglement not only provides 35% clarity without any destruction of cells but also helps in the improvement of sensing. Therefore, eliminating the last piece of the puzzle. This exciting breakthrough will create endless bio-technology uprisings.
Biosensors have risen in popularity because of their potential to revolutionize medical diagnosis and health monitoring. To improve and speed up the coronavirus testing, KAUST scientists merged state-of-the-art bioelectronics equipment, materials science engineering, and synthetic biology protein design. Thus, in less than 15 minutes, this new biosensor technology can be successful in delivering very precise results. Combination of electrochemical biosensors with designed protein structures, this diagnostic allows clinicians to detect virus bits rapidly and precisely, something that was previously only achievable with slower genetic procedures. The complete system may operate on unprocessed blood at the point of care, eliminating the need for time-consuming sample collection. Primarily, human saliva and samples of blood treated with portions of protein from the coronaviruses that cause MERS and COVID-19 were used to fine-tune the test. After the collaboration with KAUST health doctors and scientists from King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Riyadh, the swabs from the patients were examined. Therefore, the new technology is likely to complement or even substitute existing diagnostics for COVID-19 and any future pandemics due to its speed, adaptability, and performance when compared to standard genetic testing.
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9. Agriculture and climate
With the help of biotechnology, scientists could make a new discovery that can have an impact on how crops can be grown despite the change in climates. Furthermore, it can also aid our understanding of molecular systems in animals and people. The study of vernalization has given us a lot of insight into how plants sense temperature at a molecular level. Researchers from the John Innes Centre used a plant named Arabidopsis grown in various climates for experiments. They noticed what all the plants had in common: when the temperature went below freezing, COOLAIR levels spiked which is antisense to a gene called FLC. According to the researchers, COOLAIR expression levels climbed within an hour of freezing and peaked eight hours later. According to the researchers, “The first seasonal frost serves as an important indicator in autumn for winter arrival.” Thus, the findings shed light on the versatility of the molecular process by which plants sense temperature, which could aid in their adaptation to varied climates. Moreover, because antisense transcription has been proven to influence production in yeast and human cells, the discovery will likely have broad implications for environmental control of gene expression in various organisms.
Reference article: The first frost is the deepest
10. Environmental DNA
The DNA that originates from different organisms which are found in water or land are Environmental DNA (eDNA) and the study of eDNA helps in the identification of species. Similarly, a new environmental DNA- detection technique was used by Biologists led by the University of Iowa to discover the existence of the exotic New Zealand mud snail by finding their DNA in waters that were previously unknown to be inhabited. This was the first time ever this technique was applied for the detection of a new hostile population. Moreover, with the help of eDNA technique researchers have also been successful in finding the Argentine ant’s environmental DNA in surface soil samples from two regions where the invasive species had wreaked havoc; places on Kobe’s Port Island and Kyoto’s Fushimi district. Thus, this method can also work effectively in pest controls. Consequently, this strategy can even help scientists comprehend the ecological diversity and hotspots for worldwide invasive organisms that cause major harm, such as the fire ant.
More info – nature.com