May 1, 1998

27 Min Read
Keeping Pace  with Biotechnology

 Keeping Pace
with Biotechnology
May 1998 -- Cover Story

By: Suanne J. Klahorst
Contributing Editor

  This year, new milestones will be achieved in food biotechnology as decades of research in plant, animal and microbial genetics reach fruition in the form of product sales. It's new products that fulfill the optimism associated with the biotech revolution. Biotech-watching is as serious a business as biotech itself, keeping scientists and investors abreast of new inventions and discoveries. While the scientific community struggles to keep up with new developments, the average nonscientist is cryptically informed through news sound bites.  The impact of these developments and other biotech innovations contributes to the perception that not only is biotechnology creating a revolution, but the pace of that revolution is accelerating.  In 1996, plant biotechnology began blossoming. By then, at least 18 varieties of transgenic crop seeds were approved for U.S. sale. Seventy-five seed companies were seeking a license for Monsanto Company's Roundup Ready(r) gene trait for soybean seed. By 1997, 15 million acres of pest- or herbicide-resistant crops were planted on U.S. farmland, including soybeans, corn, potatoes and canola.  Peter Mascia, seed division biotechnology manager, Cargill, Aurora, IL, estimates that "by the year 2000, up to half of Cargill's seed products will be produced using genetic engineering techniques." Diversified agrichemical corporations, including Monsanto, The Dow Chemical Company and Dupont, are hungry to expand their food businesses, and are investing in food technology and food biotech firms. Dupont, Wilmington, DE, the leader in food-related acquisitions, spent $3 billion for interests in seed and soybean technology - including $1.7 billion for 20% of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., Des Moines, IA, and $1.5 billion for Protein Technologies International, St. Louis.  Other biotech areas also are expanding. Last October, the number of bases recorded in the worldwide DNA sequence database reached 1 billion. The database is growing at a 10-fold rate every five years. Biotechnology-related patent applications are being filed at the rate of 40,000 per month. The allure of potential profits in the biotech industry is fueling a race to develop biotech know-how in molecular biology techniques, information systems, and the use of gazillions of gizmos for making biotech easier, faster and more gratifying than ever. Some of the smarter, more efficient technologies being used in biotech include: combinatorial chemistry, bioinformatics, high through-put robotic screening, and gene chips.Setting the stage  Historically, the pharmaceutical industry made the most significant contributions to hastening the pace of modern biotechnology innovation. Two decades of investments in drug R&D financed discoveries and inventions in genetics, molecular biology, cell biology, biochemistry and immunology. U.S. pharmaceutical sales were $93 billion last year, and R&D spending in 1998 is expected to reach $20 billion. Rising costs, managed care and competitive pressures have rendered old methods of drug R&D too costly, especially with only 3 out of 10 new drugs in the market earning enough to recover their R&D costs.  What advances in pharmaceutical development are likely to impact the food industry? Potentially all of them. Compared to the pharmaceutical industry, biotech in the food industry had been proceeding at a snail's pace. Now that the food status quo is being targeted by plant biotech, the food industry can see new products on the horizon. In many respects, the food industry poses an attractive market for biotech innovation. Gaining regulatory approval for new products that differ significantly from those currently on the market can be expensive and lengthy. Consider olestra, for which the approval process was as onerous as that of most new drugs. Biotech products might be able to bypass some regulatory hurdles.  The nutritional food-supplement sector - aptly named nutraceuticals - represents a promising area for future biotech innovation. Although the food and pharmaceutical sectors exhibit similarities, the food industry is the undisputed expert on pleasing food processors and retail customers. As the trend toward hi-tech food continues, biotechnology is ready in the wings, willing and able to provide whatever the latest science (or the latest fad) dictates is necessary.  The typical food company's approach to the genetic engineering revolution is analogous to entering through the back door of the biotech laboratory. Corporate partnering through research contracts with biotech companies is the most common means of bringing recombinant or transgenic products to food markets. Until recently, few exceptions existed. One exception is Pfizer, Inc., New York. The company gained approval for the first recombinant food ingredient, chymosin, in 1990. Since the product was identical to the animal version, no special labeling was required. The new enzyme went largely unnoticed by consumers. But it frequently gains attention inside and outside the industry, as a case history for biotech success.  In addition to a lack of competency in genetic "biotech-niques," the food industry is still wary of the risks associated with two conflicting images: one of natural, wholesome food; the other of a complex science that seems to be redefining nature.  It was Calgene Chemical, Inc., Skokie, IL, recently bought by Monsanto, that brought the first recombinant vegetable crop to market, even though food companies funded some of the development. Connections between food and biotech become stronger every year. As biotech delivers visible consumer benefits - improving health, availability or product quality - conflicting images should begin appearing more complementary.  A 1997 report by the International Food Information Council indicates that up to 79% of U.S. consumers are aware of biotechnology. A Food Marketing Institute survey found that 67% of consumers would purchase biotech products. For many in the food industry, these reports are insufficiently reassuring. To a large extent, consumers are insulated from the biotech revolution that will soon be taking over the supermarket. The ultimate proof of biotech acceptability is how consumers spend their food dollars, and whether approval of food biotechnology continues increasing among the remaining 20%. In such a large market, whole business sectors can exist on appealing to only 20%.Continental skepticism  Studies show that, in spite of the number of recombinant products currently utilized in food processing, awareness of biotechnology has been typically lower in the United States than in Europe. The world leaders in biotechnology awareness are the Germans, Austrians, Danes, Finns, Norwegians, Swedes, Canadians and Japanese. A 1995 study by the Food Marketing Institute ranked Germans and Austrians highest in consumer concern for health hazards associated with transgenic plants. In Austria, 1.2 million citizens signed a petition calling for a five-year continuation of the ban on genetically altered corn. In at least one-third of the European Union (EU) nations, respondents considered genetic engineering as representing a serious health hazard.  Europeans' unwillingness to accept transgenic crops is a source of distress for agricultural firms trading such commodities as corn and soybeans. Exports of soy, corn and other animal feed to the European Economic Community (EEC) currently top $9 billion, and are expected to increase. In April 1997, during the week-long "Global Days of Action Against Biotechnology," 200 groups held protests in 24 countries to spread the word that transgenic food might be unsafe for humans and the environment. Protesters targeted Monsanto in New York; Melbourne, Australia; and London. European supermarket chains responded to the protests by demanding their suppliers certify their products as free of genetically modified organisms. Some promised customers they would not stock transgenic foodstuffs.  Developers of transgenic crops appear undaunted by activists. Greenpeace, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and other groups adding heat to the controversy are viewed as short-term opposition that can be overcome by public education. Sales of biotech products in the EEC are estimated to reach $278 billion in 2005, with most growth expected in food and agriculture. The predictions assume a population explosion in China and India during the next 10 years that will create large export markets for EEC food crops. To meet the demand, EEC farmers will need to deliver the higher yields and the nutritional advantages of transgenic crops to compete with U.S. and Canadian farmers.  While the scientific advisory committee of the European Commission (the European Union's executive arm) endorsed the sale of several new transgenic crops this year, disagreement exists among the 15 individual member states about which products should be allowed in the market. The goal of the EEC - to unite 350 million people under a single standard for international trade - was compromised by the language of the European Commission's "Novel Foods Regulation."  Introduced May 1997, the regulations state that labeling of genetically modified organisms is required for food products not "substantially equivalent" to what already exists on the market, but no definition of equivalency was offered. Representatives of member states failed in their attempts to agree on a definition. In the meantime, the food industry and major retailers have agreed to a set of voluntary guidelines to help implement the Novel Foods Regulation.  The labeling issues influence not only consumer acceptance, but also marketing logistics, since the first commodity transgenic crops were intended to fit into the existing infrastructure for trading commodities internationally. To separate commodities that don't require labeling from those that do, identity preservation is required from fields to processing plants. This lack of flexibility will limit the use of these improved crops to specific markets, at least in the short term.Plant it  The agrichemicals industry has embraced modern plant biotechnology as the most effective means to replace pesticides and develop higher value crops. The most recent generation of transgenic crops primarily featured resistance to pests and herbicides, resulting in higher crop yields. For farmers, these benefits solve many of their most pressing problems. Pressured to reduce pesticide use, combined with the need to use more as pests acquire resistance, farmers needed environmentally safe solutions as alternatives. "Bt," designating the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis and its genes, has served as an alternative for 30 years. Bt genes code for several proteins toxic to insects, and are a component of several new crop varieties. As might be expected, Bt is ineffective against some insects. And cases exist in which the plant does not express enough of the Bt proteins to deter pests. Bt cotton did not deter cotton bollworms in spite of its genetic programming for insect protection. Screening organisms for pest-resistance bioactivities has uncovered numerous new candidates with the potential to equal Bt in effectiveness.  Genetically modified crops approved for the market include: apple, barley, beet, corn, canola, cucumber, eggplant, grape, lettuce, melon, peanut, pepper, potato, raspberry, rice, soybean, squash, strawberry, sunflower, tomato and wheat. Some are newcomers (wheat); others are gaining market share (soybeans, corn, canola); and still others have been and gone, like Calgene's Flavr Savrô tomato which failed to meet economic expectations. In the race for crop improvement, only the legal battles over intellectual property rights temporarily slow the technical progress.  Successful biotech/agriculture partnerships have fostered growth of new companies to deliver improved crop attributes to food-processing companies. One new sprout, Optimum Quality Grains, Des Moines, IA, is a joint venture between Dupont and Pioneer Hi-Bred International. Optimum Quality Grains markets several improved crop varieties. These include dent corn, in which the oil content has been increased from 4% to 7.5% for animal-feed applications. For human consumption, high-sucrose soybeans offer a reduction in gas-associated carbohydrates and sugar-related functional properties. High-protein soybeans appropriate for soymilk- and tofu-processing are becoming available. Both are free of lipoxygenase-2 enzyme, reducing the beany taste. In soybean and sunflower, the oil composition was modified to increase the more stable, oleic fatty acid content to 80%. This provides a stable, unsaturated oil without the need for hydrogenation, which can generate trans fatty acids.  Optimum's mission is "to market value-enhanced feed and food ingredients through grain and grain products," says Matthew Renkoski, director, marketing, food, oils and industrial products division. "Our customer is ultimately the consumer, and we see Optimum contracting production of novel grains for the food industry that offer advantages that food processors and consumers consider valuable." The company says it will not only funnel functional grains to the food processor, but will provide timely customer feedback to its ag-savvy parent companies.  Canola has captured 10% of the U.S. vegetable oil market, and canola improvements through mutagenesis and recombinant DNA techniques have produced varieties that are up to 86% oil, high in oleic fatty acids, and low in linolenic fatty acids. Products such as these, along with other improved oilseed crops such as soybean and sunflower, are a potential fit for Cargill's Clear ValleyÆ high oleic or Odysseyô high-stability vegetable oils.  Carolyn Fritz, general manager, specialty oils, Cargill, estimates that biotechnology is at the same stage the computer revolution was during the early 1980s. At Cargill's molecular biology lab in Fort Collins, CO, canola is being developed for disease protection, reduced saturated fat and stability. Fritz sees a definite advantage to being a big food company in the ag biotech business, compared with biotech companies or organizations that have to build the food business from scratch, or acquire it. Up until now, most of Cargill's biotech products have been purchased or licensed from other companies. In the short term, partnerships with biotech will decrease the company's risk, but if R&D costs go down, Cargill executives predict the long-term goal will be to bring more technology development in-house.  Wheat is among the last of the major cereal grains to be genetically engineered because of inherent difficulties in the plant's physiology. After techniques for altering wheat genetics are mastered, the possibilities for improvement are many. Proposed for consideration are: modification in the nutritional value; the functional characteristics of wheat flour dough; and other food-related improvements. Before "super wheats" are developed, however, agricultural organizations will have to make some tough choices, and those choices depend on understanding the value of these improvements.Improving enzymes  In spite of some food "biotechnophobia" in Europe, EEC enjoys a booming biotechnology industry in food and agriculture. Many biotech products are not subject to the labeling issue. Sales of biotech products in the EEC for the agricultural sectors are currently $5.6 billion annually. A significant contribution to biotech product sales are enzymes produced by microorganisms. The enzymes are organism-free extracts; however, new production microorganisms are frequently developed using recombinant DNA or other mutagenic techniques.  Approval for most new food-grade enzymes in the United States is sought through a self-affirming, GRAS (generally recognized as safe) petition to FDA. Enzymes are uniquely positioned because they don't appear on the food-product label, provided they are inactivated in the final product. Inactivation is usually accomplished during heat processing, such as baking or pasteurization.  Food-enzyme development focuses on understanding the expression of genes within a limited number of well-established, food-grade host microorganisms.  "Today, you can clone and express just about any enzyme, but it is the high-yield expression work that makes an enzyme economically viable," says Glenn Nedwin, CEO, Novo Nordisk Biotech, Davis, CA. Once the expression system is understood, the organism can be modified to produce cost-effective quantities of enzymes for food applications. Nedwin predicts that more monocomponent enzymes will be available in the future.  Conventional organisms secrete a mixture of enzymes and activities, resulting in a product containing enzymes that are superfluous to the intended use. These are sometimes purified by a separation process to remove undesirable side activities, greatly increasing costs. Using genetic engineering, genes coding for some of the unneeded enzyme proteins can be deleted, resulting in higher levels of targeted enzyme components without additional purification steps. Preferably, the gene of interest can be cloned and expressed in a heterologous host that already has a low background of unwanted enzymatic side activities.  Nedwin expects the two food-enzyme growth markets will be baking and protein hydrolysis. Amylase enzymes retard staling in baked goods. Proteases produce protein-based flavors and improve functionality in protein foods. Compared to pharmaceutical biotechnology, new enzyme products can enter the market more quickly - only two to four years for food- and feed-grade enzyme products.  One enzyme not inactivated during processing is chymosin, which appears on the product label as "enzymes." Chymosin has replaced up to 80% of the rennet used in cheese-making operations. Fermentation-produced chymosin is obtained from a genetically engineered transgenic microorganism, resulting in a coagulation enzyme virtually identical to the chymosin found in rennet, a mixture of enzymes extracted from the stomachs of calf weanlings. Three types of fermentation-produced chymosin were approved by FDA: Pfizer's Chy-maxÆ, produced in the nonpathogenic E. coli K-12; and later chymosin expressed in yeast and in fungal systems. Chr. Hansen, Milwaukee, now owns two of the three, Chy-max and the fungal version, ChymogenÆ.Microbial advances  A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and a wedge of cheese - all represent potential targets for biotech improvement. Saccharomyces cerevisiae - the most domesticated of the single-cell eukaryotes and the model single-cell organism in genetics and molecular biology - also is an industry standard in baking, brewing and winemaking. The technology to genetically manipulate commercial yeast has been available for decades. But research activity using new technologies to optimize this organism to significantly improve fermentation has been limited. This is not surprising, since fermented products are based on centuries of tradition, a formidable roadblock to biotech innovation.  Recently, the sequencing of the entire genome of S. cervisiae was completed. Efforts now are focusing on systematic studies of yeast physiology to increase the understanding of the expression and functions of its 6,000 genes. Attempts also are being made to understand how this popular yeast adjusts its metabolic processes to the industrial environment. Using new techniques, arrays of the entire yeast genome are being applied to specially designed "gene chips" that serve as tools for analysis of the biological roles of the yeast genome. This increased understanding of cellular mechanisms is expected to lead to new strains of bioengineered yeast for novel applications. Baking industry experts see opportunities for the use of recombinant DNA technology to improve the response of yeast to the drying process, and for the leavening of frozen or high-sugar concentration doughs.  An article in March 1997's Nature Biotechnology describes a genetic modification of S. cerevisiae specifically for winemaking. A strain has been constructed containing the transport system and the enzymes to ferment malic acid. In traditional winemaking, lactic acid bacteria cultures are sometimes added after the alcoholic fermentation is completed by yeast, particularly in cold regions where grapes have excess malic acid at harvest. The conversion of malic acid to lactic acid results in a net reduction of wine acidity. Malolactic fermentation stabilizes wine by using up microingredients that can support growth of spoilage organisms, and produces subtle amounts of diacetyl for flavor enhancement. By conducting alcoholic and malolactic fermentations simultaneously by a single specialized yeast, the wine could be stored earlier and winery throughput improved. The new malic acid-fermenting strain of S. cerevisiae, although not expected to replace malolactic cultures entirely, is significant as an attempt to bring the ancient art of winemaking into the age of transgenic possibilities. Two limitations of the new yeast strain are lack of desired sensory notes, and inability to stabilize the wine by removing micronutrients.  Another lactic acid bacteria, Lactococcus, is important in cheese production, providing two important functions in flavor development during cheese-ripening: production of protease enzymes and lactic-acid production. Carefully selected species of bacteria are added as starter cultures. These empty their cellular contents, containing proteases, during the ripening period, which is sometimes as long as 18 months.  Enzyme-modified cheese accelerates flavor development by using cheese-ripening enzymes from selected industrial microorganisms. Controlling the enzymatic reaction is critical. Bitterness is a problem with certain protease enzymes. And, sometimes, soapy flavors can develop. The enzyme must be inactivated by heating, which is only acceptable for processed cheese.  For natural cheeses, attempts to shorten cheese-ripening time have proven less successful. New research, published last year by the Netherlands Dairy Research Institute and the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, demonstrates the potential for accelerated ripening of table cheeses. The development of a gene-expression system that "turns off genes" at temperatures greater than 42°C was developed by studying a bacteriophage (a virus that attacks bacteria) known to infect Lactococcus. A new genetic construction of Lactococcus containing a nisin gene exhibited the potential to release natural intracellular enzymes much sooner than native strains of the bacteria. This improvement could accelerate cheese-ripening in a controllable manner.  Another important opportunity for biotechnology in food processing is improving food safety. Prabakara Choudary, Ph.D., director, Antibody Engineering Laboratory, University of California, Davis, has invented a DNA-based method for detecting pathogenic E. coli 0157:H7 in contaminated foods. The new method is sensitive enough to detect a single colony-forming unit of the pathogenic bacterium in a gram of food sample.  "The DNA molecule, because of its remarkable stability, in addition to its many other features, is ideally suited for applications in molecular diagnostics," Choudary says. "The use of PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to amplify the amount of target DNA, and the use of fluorescent tags to improve sensitivity of detection, are two examples of how DNA can form the basis for improved diagnostic methods. The DNA chips being developed for use as biosensors could be the future 'dip sticks' for testing food products."Cloning, cloning  The term "cloning" has become such an everyday part of our language that it is used to refer to copies of anything, the typical example being "computer clones." The term took on new significance last year when a sheep named Dolly became a media magnet, prompting many Americans to wonder how long before human cloning was possible. President Clinton also took notice by banning federal funding for human-cloning research while the National Bioethics Advisory Commission studied the ethical and legal implications.  Worldwide concern about human cloning's ethical implications prompted an attempt to draft international cloning guidelines, and countries with detailed legislation prohibiting human cloning are revising terminology to stay current with new methods in animal transgenics. Media coverage and political hoopla have overshadowed the facts about cloning, and its potential for producing drugs and nutraceuticals more efficiently. Many scientists have criticized the media and the onslaught of misinformation on animal and human cloning.  At the August 1997 Transgenic Animals in Agriculture Conference, Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, described the nuclear transfer procedures that resulted in a viable sheep embryo when implanted in a surrogate mother. The lamb was developed from an adult sheep cell - a scientific first. Transgenic animal procedures - termed "cloning" because DNA is not donated through fertilization - were first described in 1986. An oversimplified description of the procedure is that cells from an animal fetus are grown in tissue culture. After about 30 days, the nucleus is removed from an unfertilized egg and the fetal cells are inserted. Several additional steps are required to accomplish this. If the egg receiving the nuclear transfer develops into an embryo and is implanted in a surrogate mother, a birth can result. Once an animal reaches sexual maturity, it's theoretically possible to pass the new genes to its offspring.  The development of stable cell lines is important to the application of transgenic animal technology. For "pharming" applications, successful replacement of targeted animal genes with human genes is a requirement for producing human proteins with therapeutic value. The insertion of new genes into animal species is still an inexact science in most cases. Scientists involved in cloning research for livestock are doubtful that cloning will replace current breeding for livestock production for several more years.  Livestock cloning would be extremely inefficient at this point. In Dolly's case, only one lamb was born for 277 nuclear cell transfers. Due to the expense and the unfavorable odds, cloning primarily offers an advantage when identical - or "nearly identical" - animals are required. Animal-cloning researchers seeking funding quickly point out that transgenic animals are the most valuable for use in the production of high-value, purified pharmaceuticals or nutraceuticals. Roslin has agreed to license their technology to PPL Therapeutics, United Kingdom, for producing human therapeutic proteins in the milk of transgenic livestock species. The first commercial product targeted by PPL is a protein used to treat cystic fibrosis. This would require the replacement of a sheep gene with a human version. PPL also is interested in human serum albumin from transgenic cows.  Dairy cattle and pigs are the primary target animals for pharming applications because of the volume of milk that cows can deliver, and the similarity of pig physiology to human. Research in larger species is considerably more difficult because of a longer gestation period - 280 days for cattle. In Europe, closing transgenic herds to keep Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy and other diseases from entering the human pharmaceutical chain further reduces the number of animals available for research.  After the Dolly story broke, several companies disclosed similar transgenic animal success stories to the media, creating the illusion that cloning is becoming rather commonplace. Most scientists working in this field acknowledge that the media announcements are misleading, although they attract funding that will bring animal cloning a step closer to feasibility. The scientific impact of some of these new births is difficult to estimate, since the news releases don't always accompany scientific publication. A cloned bull calf, named "Gene" was born in August 1997 to ABS Global's venture, Infigen, Inc., DeForest, WI. A press release reported the success rate as 1 in 18 implantations resulting in live birth - with improvements imminent. Infigen says their goal is to perfect this technology for commercial use in the dairy and beef industries. By developing a bull-cell line, a bull with specific genetic traits can be used for semen production. Scientists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, also reported the birth of two calves, Charlie and George, created from somatic cells. Advanced Cell Technology Inc., Worcester, MA, is planning to market technology with Genzyme Transgenics Corporation, Farmingham, MA, to produce human serum albumin. Successful cloning of genes in primates and mice also has been reported.  One nutraceutical application for cloning animal genes involves the enzyme, lysozyme. This antimicrobial enzyme, usually extracted from eggs, is sometimes used for controlling bacteria growth during cheese-ripening. Dairy cattle also produce low levels of lysozyme in their milk. If a gene-coding for lysozyme were expressed in cow's milk, it might offer some unique benefits over conventional milk. The incidence of mastitis, an infection of the udder that takes cows out of milk production for antibiotic treatment, might be reduced. The enzyme also might reduce the amount of antibiotics dairy cattle require. The milk might have increased microbial stability, lowering production or storage costs. Gary Anderson and James Murray, both professors, department of animal science, University of California, Davis, are collaborating on demonstrating lysozyme production in cattle.  Another application for animal transgenics is the use of biotechnology to improve marine foods. Aqua Bounty Farms, St. Johns, Newfoundland, has established a hatchery on Prince Edward Island to supply stocks of transgenic fish. Salmon have been genetically modified to grow 400% faster and 10 times larger than average. The gene responsible for this growth-rate increase can be applied to other species commonly sold for food, such as halibut, tilapia, trout and turbot.  Shrimp is another area targeted for improvement. Recent patents on transgenic manipulation of shrimp describe increases in fertility and the frequency of spawning. Snow crab and other crustaceans may be candidates for similar research. Genetically improved marine algae with improved growth rates also is being examined by commercial seaweed growers, such as Coastal Plantations International, Poland, ME. For marine foods subject to contaminating pathogens, transgenics are being investigated as one route to improve these species' natural defenses. Antimicrobial peptides from horseshoe crabs are being studied for the purpose of duplicating the same immune response in susceptible fish species.  Whether plant, animal or single-cell microbe, techniques to modify cell genomes are rapidly advancing. Genetic engineering has targeted the food industry as the next business frontier, and food companies won't hesitate to deliver better nutrition and enhanced functional benefits to their customers. Confidence in U.S. regulatory agencies to establish sound guidelines for biotech food products, and to protect the consumer and the environment is required for biotechnology to maintain its excellent track record in the food industry. Opponents and critics will continue raising issues that need to be addressed through education and sound science. The biotech industry is quick to point out that millions of experiments in genetic engineering have been performed without a single known case of a genetic trait accidentally being transferred.  "Because biotechnology, in effect, gives mankind more power to tamper with nature, it has been the subject of intense regulatory scrutiny in the U.S. and around the world," says F. Guillaume Bastiaens, food sector president, Cargill. "That is as it should be. We need to approach, and use, this capability with great respect and responsibility."Decoding Biotech Lingo  The following entries define the more commonly used expressions in the biotechnology field.

  bioinformatics - interdisciplinary area of applied research for the purpose of creating extensive computer databases for accessing data compiled from bio-chemical research, such as genomes, protein sequences, and three-dimensional modeling of molecules and biological systems.  biotechnology - 1 broad definition: the commercial applications of biological processes, including the ancient use of fermentation for food preservation and modern techniques, such as genetic engineering. 2 common usage: contemporary commercialization of products that advance science or improve the quality of life through the use of modern techniques that alter the genetic code of organisms (and viruses).  clone - 1 identical copy of a DNA fragment. 2 a cell that was grown from a single parent cell and can multiply into a group of cells with identical genomes.  combinatorial chemistry - the process by which a compound that is known for a desired functional characteristic can be converted into similar chemical compounds that are later screened for improvements in functionality.  genome - all the genetic material in the chromosomes of an organism, the size of which is defined by the number of base pairs.  gene chip - a microchip covered with DNA that hybridizes nucleotides of a complementary sequence, used as a powerful diagnostic tool for screening large segments of DNA. Specialized chips can be designed for studying yeasts, viruses or human cancer cells.  genetic engineering - the use of molecular biochemical science techniques to manipulate an organism's genetic material. Some definitions also include traditional methods, such as selective breeding and commercial selection. This term is not typically used for traditional methods because it is easily confused with recombinant DNA techniques. Synonyms: "genetic modification," "genetic manipulation," "gene technology."  genomics - the study of the structure and function of genes.  high through-put screening - the use of robotics to look for specific characteristics in a compound or an organism that has been genetically or chemically altered, a technology that transferred biotech practices from the macro test-tube scale into the microprocessing domain.  homologous - a gene or DNA sequence from one species that also is found in other species as a result of descent from a common ancestor.  heterologous - a DNA sequence that contains genes or DNA from a separate genetic source or species.  identity preservation - practices that separate genetically modified agricultural crops from traditional commodities during growing, harvesting, storage and processing to prevent mixing with crops not modified for the desired trait.  marker gene - a gene that is attached to another gene to make it easier to find.  mutagenesis - change in the genetic code of an organism that is site-directed or random.   "Site-directed" denotes mutation targeted for a specific gene.   In random mutagenesis, genes mutate in the cell when exposed to agents that cause mutation. Microbial colonies and tissue cultures can be used. The mutants are screened to see if the desired result was achieved, and the cells with the new trait are selected.  pharming - slang term describing the proposed use of transgenic plants or animals (cloned animals are preferred) to produce pharmaceuticals or nutraceuticals, ideally as part of their mammary gland function.  polymerase chain reaction - a rapid method for amplifying a DNA base sequence using a heat-stable polymerase (an enzyme that catalyzes DNA replication). Using two 20-base primers, new copies of DNA are synthesized, which serve as templates for successive rounds of cycling that, when repeated, produce rapid and highly specific amplification of the desired sequence.  recombinant DNA technologies - procedures for joining and severing DNA segments outside a cell. The final product is called recombinant DNA (rDNA), which is later integrated into the cell's genetic code.  trait - a characteristic of an organism that distinguishes it from other organisms.  transgenic - 1 a microorganism, plant or animal that has had genes from another species inserted into its genome, using recombinant DNA technology. 2 the offspring of transgenic organisms.  Suanne Klahorst is a free-lance food-science writer and food scientist with eight years of experience in the industrial enzyme industry. She is currently with the California Institute of Food and Agricultural Research at the University of California, Davis.Back to top

Subscribe and receive the latest insights on the health and nutrition industry.
Join 37,000+ members. Yes, it's completely free.

You May Also Like