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8.3: Biotechnology

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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Lesson Objectives

  • Describe gene cloning and the polymerase chain reaction.
  • Explain how DNA technology is applied in medicine and agriculture.
  • Identify some of the ethical, legal, and social issues raised by biotechnology.


  • biotechnology
  • gene cloning
  • genetic engineering
  • pharmacogenomics
  • polymerase chain reaction (PCR)
  • recombinant DNA
  • synthetic biology
  • transgenic crop


Biotechnology is the use of technology to change the genetic makeup of living things for human purposes. Generally, the purpose of biotechnology is to create organisms that are useful to humans or to cure genetic disorders. For example, biotechnology may be used to create crops that resist insect pests or yield more food, or to create new treatments for human diseases.

Biotechnology: The Invisible Revolution can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OcG9q9cPqm4.

“What does biotechnology have to do with me?” is discussed in the following video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrT5BT_7HdI (10:01).

Biotechnology Methods

Biotechnology uses a variety of techniques to achieve its aims. Two commonly used techniques are gene cloning and the polymerase chain reaction.

Gene Cloning

Gene cloning is the process of isolating and making copies of a gene. This is useful for many purposes. For example, gene cloning might be used to isolate and make copies of a normal gene for gene therapy. Gene cloning involves four steps: isolation, ligation, transformation, and selection. You can watch an interactive animation about gene cloning at this link: http://www.teachersdomain.org/asset/biot09_int_geneclone/.

  1. In isolation, an enzyme is used to break DNA at a specific base sequence. This is done to isolate a gene.
  2. During ligation, the enzyme DNA ligase combines the isolated gene with plasmid DNA from bacteria. (Plasmid DNA is circular DNA that is not part of a chromosome and can replicate independently.) Ligation is illustrated in Figure below. The DNA that results is called recombinant DNA.
  3. In transformation, the recombinant DNA is inserted into a living cell, usually a bacterial cell. Changing an organism in this way is also called genetic engineering.
  4. Selection involves growing transformed bacteria to make sure they have the recombinant DNA. This is a necessary step because transformation is not always successful. Only bacteria that contain the recombinant DNA are selected for further use.

Ligation. DNA ligase joins together an isolated gene and plasmid DNA. This produces recombinant DNA.

Recombinant DNA technology is discussed in the following videos and animations: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2jUMG2E-ic (4.36), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jy15BWVxTC0 (0.50), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjwNtQYLKeU (7.20), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fi63VjfhsfI (3:59).

Polymerase Chain Reaction

The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) makes many copies of a gene or other DNA segment. This might be done in order to make large quantities of a gene for genetic testing. PCR involves three steps: denaturing, annealing, and extension. The three steps are illustrated in Figure below. They are repeated many times in a cycle to make large quantities of the gene. You can watch animations of PCR at these links:

  1. Denaturing involves heating DNA to break the bonds holding together the two DNA strands. This yields two single strands of DNA.
  2. Annealing involves cooling the single strands of DNA and mixing them with short DNA segments called primers. Primers have base sequences that are complementary to segments of the single DNA strands. As a result, bonds form between the DNA strands and primers.
  3. Extension occurs when an enzyme (Taq polymerase or Taq DNA polymerase) adds nucleotides to the primers. This produces new DNA molecules, each incorporating one of the original DNA strands.

The Polymerase Chain Reaction. The polymerase chain reaction involves three steps. High temperatures are needed for the process to work. The enzyme Taq polymerase is used in step 3 because it can withstand high temperatures.

Applications of Biotechnology

Methods of biotechnology can be used for many practical purposes. They are used widely in both medicine and agriculture.

Applications in Medicine

In addition to gene therapy for genetic disorders, biotechnology can be used to transform bacteria so they are able to make human proteins. Figure below shows how this is done. Proteins made by the bacteria are injected into people who cannot produce them because of mutations.

Genetically Engineering Bacteria to Produce a Human Protein. Bacteria can be genetically engineered to produce a human protein, such as a cytokine. A cytokine is a small protein that helps fight infections.

Insulin was the first human protein to be produced in this way. Insulin helps cells take up glucose from the blood. People with type 1 diabetes have a mutation in the gene that normally codes for insulin. Without insulin, their blood glucose rises to harmfully high levels. At present, the only treatment for type 1 diabetes is the injection of insulin from outside sources. Until recently, there was no known way to make insulin outside the human body. The problem was solved by gene cloning. The human insulin gene was cloned and used to transform bacterial cells, which could then produce large quantities of human insulin.

KQED: Pharmacogenomics

As we have learned, we know that, thanks to our DNA, each of us is a little bit different. Some of those differences are obvious, like eye and hair color, but others are not so obvious, like how our bodies react to medication. Researchers are beginning to look at how to tailor medical treatments to our genetic profiles, in a relatively new field called Pharmacogenomics. Some of the biggest breakthroughs have been in cancer treatment. For additional information on this “personalized medicine,” listen to http://www.kqed.org/quest/radio/personalized-medicine and see http://www.kqed.org/quest/blog/2009/09/11/reporters-notes-personalized-medicine/.

KQED: Synthetic Biology

Imagine living cells acting as memory devices; biofuels brewing from yeast, or a light receptor taken from algae that makes photographs on a plate of bacteria. The new field of Synthetic Biology is making biology easier to engineer so that new functions can be derived from living systems. Find out the tools that synthetic biologists are using and the exciting things they are building.

Applications in Agriculture

Biotechnology has been used to create transgenic crops. Transgenic crops are genetically modified with new genes that code for traits useful to humans. The diagram in Figure below shows how a transgenic crop is created. You can learn more about how scientists create transgenic crops with the interactive animation Engineer a Crop—Transgenic Manipulation at this link: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/harvest/engineer/transgen.html.

Creating a Transgenic Crop. A transgenic crop is genetically modified to be more useful to humans. The bacterium transfers the T-DNA (from the Ti plasmid) fragment with the desired gene into the host plant's nuclear genome.

Transgenic crops have been created with a variety of different traits, such as yielding more food, tasting better, surviving drought, and resisting insect pests. Scientists have even created a transgenic purple tomato that contains a cancer-fighting compound and others that have high levels of antioxidants (see Figure below). See http://extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening/purple-tomato-debuts-%E2%80%98indigo-rose%E2%80%99 for more information.

Transgenic Purple Tomato. A purple tomato is genetically modified to contain high levels of antioxidants. A gene for the compound was transferred into normal red tomatoes.

Biotechnology in agriculture is discussed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IY3mfgbe-0c (6:40).

Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues

The use of biotechnology has raised a number of ethical, legal, and social issues. Here are just a few:

  • Who owns genetically modified organisms such as bacteria? Can such organisms be patented like inventions?
  • Are genetically modified foods safe to eat? Might they have unknown harmful effects on the people who consume them?
  • Are genetically engineered crops safe for the environment? Might they harm other organisms or even entire ecosystems?
  • Who controls a person’s genetic information? What safeguards ensure that the information is kept private?
  • How far should we go to ensure that children are free of mutations? Should a pregnancy be ended if the fetus has a mutation for a serious genetic disorder?

Addressing such issues is beyond the scope of this FlexBook® textbook. The following example shows how complex the issues may be:

A strain of corn has been created with a gene that encodes a natural pesticide. On the positive side, the transgenic corn is not eaten by insects, so there is more corn for people to eat. The corn also doesn’t need to be sprayed with chemical pesticides, which can harm people and other living things. On the negative side, the transgenic corn has been shown to cross-pollinate nearby milkweed plants. Offspring of the cross-pollinated milkweed plants are now known to be toxic to monarch butterfly caterpillars that depend on them for food. Scientists are concerned that this may threaten the monarch species as well as other species that normally eat monarchs.

As this example shows, the pros of biotechnology may be obvious, but the cons may not be known until it is too late. Unforeseen harm may be done to people, other species, and entire ecosystems. No doubt the ethical, legal, and social issues raised by biotechnology will be debated for decades to come. For a recent debate about the ethics of applying biotechnology to humans, watch the video at the link below. In the video, a Harvard University professor of government and a Princeton University professor of bioethics debate the science of “perfecting humans.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BPna-fSNOE

Lesson Summary

  • Gene cloning is the process of isolating and making copies of a DNA segment such as a gene. The polymerase chain reaction makes many copies of a gene or other DNA segment.
  • Biotechnology can be used to transform bacteria so they are able to make human proteins, such as insulin. It can also be used to create transgenic crops, such as crops that yield more food or resist insect pests.
  • Biotechnology has raised a number of ethical, legal, and social issues. For example, are genetically modified foods safe to eat, and who controls a person’s genetic information?

Lesson Review Questions


1. Define biotechnology.

2. What is recombinant DNA?

3. Identify the steps of gene cloning.

4. What is the purpose of the polymerase chain reaction?

Apply Concepts

5. Make a flow chart outlining the steps involved in creating a transgenic crop.

Think Critically

6. Explain how bacteria can be genetically engineered to produce a human protein.

7. Identify an ethical, legal, or social issue raised by biotechnology. State your view on the issue, and develop a logical argument to support your view.

Points to Consider

In this lesson, you read that bacteria can be transformed with human genes so they are able to make human proteins. This is possible because the genetic code is universal. Genetic information is encoded and read in the same way in all known species. This demonstrates that all life on Earth has a common evolutionary history, beginning with the earliest living things.

  • How did the first living things on Earth arise? How and when might this have happened?
  • What do you think the first living things were like?

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