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Biotech offers colourful new antidote to human greed

The fact that we are only aware of life on Earth highlights the uniqueness and significance of biology in the universe, with ‘biology’ referring to our planet Earth. Humans, the most evolved entity in biology, have been able to explore and understand the world in a way that no other species has been able to because of our exceptionally sophisticated cognitive abilities. In the meantime, Earth has undergone tremendous environmental change because of human greed. These changes are resulting in irreversible consequences that endanger both biology and its inhabitants.

For instance, the Amazon Rainforest is a sobering illustration of how humanity’s insatiable need for land, resources, and lumber has sparked the rapid extinction of ecosystems. According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), deforestation has been occurring at an alarming rate over the past few decades. On a global scale, we continue to destroy nearly 10 million hectares of forest each year, with an estimated 420 million hectares of forests having been lost since the 1990s. This has significant impact on biology including altered carbon and nutrient cycling, loss of biodiversity, and changes in hydrological processes.

Additionally, a rise in greenhouse gas emissions brought on by the combustion of fossil fuels and coupled to widespread deforestation has contributed to an increase in global temperatures. This rise in temperature has caused altered weather patterns, changes in precipitation patterns, and a rise in sea level. Severe anthropogenic droughts experienced in California and Syria are some notable instances. And according to reports, significant portions of Eastern Africa have been suffering prolonged dry spells from October 2020, which were occasionally disrupted by brief periods of severe rainfall that frequently resulted in flash floods. In addition, due to abnormally low rainfall levels over the previous few years, Southern Madagascar is going through a worsening food security problem. This current drought has resulted in tens of thousands of people experiencing severe famine-like instances in a region where 90% of the population resides below the poverty line. Also, several studies have revealed that rising populations and global warming, which causes glacial outbursts, are some of the main causes of the global increase in flooding rates.

Biotechnology holds significant importance in helping our planet to address and mitigate the impact caused by humanity.

These changes are having a significant impact on our planet, with changes in species distribution, ecological productivity, and the increased frequency of catastrophic weather occurrences being just a few of the repercussions. A variety of contaminants, including chemicals, heavy metals, and greenhouse gases, have also been released into the environment because of the action of humans. These pollutants have a negative effect not only on humans but also on other animal’s health as well as impairing biodiversity and affecting the natural cycle of nutrients within an ecosystem. It is dreadful that humans have already wiped out 83% of wild creatures and 50% of all plants, disastrously altered ∼75% of ice-free land, and almost two-thirds of marine habitats.

Biodiversity loss and ecological collapse are among the top five threats to humanity in the next 10 years, according to the World Economic Forum’s 15th edition of the Global Risks Report. It is important to note that, although the concept of evolution has great potential for assisting species in adapting to shifting circumstances, it is a time-dependent phenomenon that does not offer immediate solutions for the rapid disruption brought on by human greed. Since evolution depends on the gradual inheritance of desirable genetic features among populations, it is unable to keep up with the accelerating rate of environmental deterioration brought on by human greed. The Earth thus has been suffering extensively because of human activities and the resulting problems, some of which may be irreversible if we do not act to address them, immediately. Even though there is still much to be done, there remains reason for optimism that we can overcome these environmental problems and forge ahead with a more sustainable future for both humanity and biology. This can be accomplished in many ways including by minimising or ceasing activities that harm or deplete the environment and by establishing new technologies and practices that are environmentally friendly and long-lasting. The long-term solutions for implementing these strategies include the application of biotechnology.

Biotechnology can save earth

The word ‘biotechnology’ has grown substantially in popularity and significance during the past few decades. This level of interest in biotechnology is probably owing to the unbounded potential for its use in serving and advancing humankind. The term ‘biotechnology’ was first used in 1919 by Hungarian engineer Karl Erkey, who defined it as ‘the process of using technology to convert raw, biological material into a useful product’. While the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Division of Sustainable Development describes biotechnology as a ‘set of enabling techniques for bringing about specific human-made changes in DNA, or genetic material, in plants, animals, and microbial systems, leading to useful products and technologies’.

The numerous applications and areas of interest within the subject of biotechnology necessitate its colour classification. It is simpler to convey and comprehend the numerous features of biotechnology by classifying the various applications of biotechnology according to their objectives and purpose. The idea of categorising biotechnology by colour was initially put forth in the late 1990s, so it is a relatively recent invention. Paul R. Ehrlich, a scientist and author, introduced the notion of colour coding various fields of biotechnology in his book ‘Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect‘ published in 2000. Red, Green, White, Blue, and Yellow Biotechnology were the initial five categories for colour classification. Other biotechnology-related categories, such as grey, black, gold, silver, orange, and pink biotechnology, were introduced gradually (Fig.1). Each set of colours represents a particular biotechnology use, such as one in medicine, agriculture, environmental science, industry, and so on. This division of biotechnology into different categories makes it easier to identify areas of overlap and cooperation between diverse sectors, as well as to create new technologies and applications. Researchers, legislatures, and business professionals today recognise and discuss the various applications and focus areas within the field of biotechnology by using the colour classification that has grown to be widely accepted in the field. It has facilitated interdisciplinary research and cooperation, which has led to several discoveries and advancements in the field of biotechnology

Biotech Rainbow: understanding the various colours of biotechnology

Red biotechnology, usually referred to as medical biotechnology, is a sector of biotechnology that focuses on using biotechnological techniques to develop therapeutics and diagnostics. From the flu pandemic, also known as the Spanish flu that killed an estimated 50 million people globally in 1918, to the most recent SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) that has infected over 500 million people and caused over 9 million deaths worldwide, we have seen how infectious diseases can change the dynamics of biology, have an impact on biodiversity, and have financial repercussions like reduced productivity and higher healthcare expenses. Red biotechnology can play a role in addressing these impacts by developing new tools and techniques for disease prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. One of the notable recent examples is the development of COVID-19 vaccines as well as rapid diagnostic tests implementing red biotechnology, which has been crucial to the ongoing fight against the global pandemic. Red biotechnology can also be used to monitor the environment for the presence of infectious diseases, which will aid in the early detection of outbreaks and the prevention of disease spread. Red biotechnology has a relatively lesser role in addressing environmental issues than other colours as it is primarily focused on developing new medical treatments, diagnostic tools, and pharmaceuticals. However, it can indirectly help by functioning with other colours of biotechnology in developing more environmentally friendly and sustainable production processes.

Green biotechnology, also known as agricultural biotechnology, is the application of biotechnology in agriculture to improve crop yields, enhance crop resistance to pests and diseases, and develop new plant varieties with desirable traits. The development and commercialisation of transgenic crops, genetically modified organisms, bio-fertilizers, bio-pesticides, as well as the use of renewable energy sources all fall under the category of green biotechnology. By manufacturing biofuels, which can substitute fossil fuels and thereby reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, green biotechnology is very useful in addressing the concerns associated with climate change. Green biotechnology can also help address soil degradation by developing crops and agricultural practices that are more sustainable, resilient, and environmentally friendly. By offering sustainable alternatives to conventional methods that cause deforestation, green biotechnology can also play a significant role in combating deforestation. It helps us to create more effective and sustainable agricultural methods, such as genetically modified crops that require less space, water, and pesticides while yielding larger yields, is one potential option. 

We can repair the harm caused by human activities and seek a more peaceful coexistence with our planet through the ethical application of biotechnology.

Yellow biotechnology is another biotechnology sector that involves the development of more nutrient-rich foods using microorganisms or insects, hence also called Nutritional Biotechnology or Insect Biotechnology. The production of crops with genetic variations, through biotechnology, has sparked a great deal of interest among scientists because the current crop variations are unable to meet future agronomic demands. Golden Rice, which is enriched with vitamin A, bio-fortified cassava, and maize, which have more beta-carotene and other necessary micronutrients, are some of the examples of the application of yellow biotechnology to enhance global health and mitigate adverse environmental effects. An increase in livestock products consumption has also brought about several environmental problems, such as pollution caused by animal waste and chemicals used in meat production, which are substantial contributors to the release of greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Some of the major contributions of yellow biotechnology include the development of transgenic cows with higher levels of lactoferrin and casein, pigs and cattle with increased amounts of unsaturated fatty acids and other proteins for healthy meat, sheep with high yields of wool and protein-rich eggs or meat-giving poultry. Thus, the quality, safety, and sustainability of our food supply have all improved by yellow biotechnology by utilising biotechnology strategies in food processing, preservation, food additives, nutritional enhancement, food safety, and sustainable food production.

Grey biotechnology, also known as environmental biotechnology, is the use of biotechnological approaches to maintain biodiversity and eradicate pollution on the environment. This sector is committed to ecological restoration and protecting the environment by employing bioremediation processes, maintaining biodiversity, preventing misuse of wildlife ecosystems, and lowering ecosystem pollution. The application of bio banking, which aids in the storage of biological specimens for research and as an emergency reserve to maintain genetic diversity, as well as vegetative replication of numerous species via cloning or micropropagation techniques, have played significant roles in the contribution of grey biotechnology to biodiversity conservation. Grey biotechnology enables bioremediation, a sustainable way of converting hazardous contaminants into harmless compounds, to be used to clean up contaminated sites or the pollutants. Using plants to absorb toxic heavy metals and organic contaminants, phytoremediation is one of the most economical bioremediation techniques. Grey biotechnology can also contribute to addressing energy scarcity in several ways such as the use of biological forms of renewable energy or bioenergy, like biofuels and biogas, and can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while boosting energy independence. Biofuels can be produced from plant-based feedstocks including corn, sugarcane, and switchgrass to replace fossil fuels

White biotechnology, also known as industrial biotechnology, is the use of biotechnology to produce and improve manufacturing processes of commodities. This sector of biotechnology manufactures bio-chemicals, materials, and fuels employing biological organisms. It can contribute to the reduction of pollution, waste, and resource depletion as well as the development of environmentally friendly goods and procedures, paving the way for a more sustainable future for our planet. White biotechnology helps us to replace pollution-causing traditional industrial processes with sustainable ones and provide the expertise and tools to identify and isolate microorganisms with remediation capabilities that can be used to develop sustainable products and processes. White biotechnology has also been used to alleviate water scarcity, a critical global issue that affects more than four billion people. Water treatment, water conservation, desalination, water recycling, and water monitoring are just a few of the solutions that white biotechnology can provide to the problem of water scarcity. 

Blue biotechnology, also called marine biotechnology, focuses on the use of marine resources for technological and industrial applications and has the potential to address several environmental issues, particularly those pertaining to the ocean and its resources. The focus of the current definition is utilisation of marine resources for the benefit of mankind. Hence, it is important to redefine it as “a field of biotechnology that uses technical advancements that can heal or restore the harm we inflicted to the blue bodies as well as assist us in utilising them”]. Blue biotechnology has been used successfully in a number of oil spill clean-up activities, including the use of Oceanospirillales for managing the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as well as the in situ bio-stimulation approach to remove trichloroethylene (TCE), a common industrial solvent, from contaminated groundwater. Furthermore, the development of sustainable aquaculture methods using blue biotechnology can help ease the strain on wild fish stocks, which are already under stress because of overfishing. Through analyzing the genetic makeup of marine organisms, it can also assist identify and conserve marine species that are crucial to the ecosystem and establish conservation measures to safeguard them. These are merely a few of the numerous applications of blue biotechnology that can be used for conserving marine biology.

Brown biotechnology focuses on the management of arid lands and deserts. This involves resolving difficulties unique to these regions, such as a lack of nutritional resources and water, which restricts the growth of plants and other species. The breeding and cultivation of drought-tolerant crops, which helps to improve agricultural productivity in arid places and lessens the demand on limited water resources, is one of the numerous ways that this biotechnology discipline helps to tackle these issues. Despite the harsh environmental conditions, these arid or desert regions have significant biodiversity, and brown biotechnology focuses on promoting the development and maintenance of the native diversity while ensuring sustainable use of the advantages they can provide. This sector of biotechnology also employs desert agroforestry or desert agriculture to develop crops that are drought-resistant and suitable for arid environments to enhance food security.

Dark biotechnology is the term used to describe the application of biotechnology for illicit activities like bioterrorism or bio-warfare. Intentional release of biological agents, such as germs, viruses, or toxins, with the intent to damage or terrorize people is referred to as bioterrorism. This can include the development and application of microbes, chemicals, or other biological agents to harm humans, water supply, livestocks, or agricultural crops. On other hand, bio-warfare involves the employment of biological weapons that have the potential to wipe out enormous populations, ruin harvests, and spread anarchy and fear. Microbial agents like B.anthracis (Anthrax), Y.pestis (Plague), Ebolavirus etc. are some of the examples that are associated with massive mortality and morbidity in the shortest amount of time. There are strict regulations and international treaties in place to prevent the research and application of dark biotechnology, which poses a major threat to human health, food security, and national security. The current definition of dark biotechnology is quite limited, focusing mostly on these malevolent applications. It is imperative to acknowledge that these measures constitute but a fraction of the broader spectrum of emergencies, particularly those pertaining to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) emergencies. Therefore, the term ‘dark biotechnology’ needs to be redefined to include the area of biotechnology that effectively uses advancements in technology for addressing a variety of emergencies, with a particular emphasis on CBRN disasters.

Light biotechnology, which specializes in managing biotechnology that has been misused, entails steps made to mitigate or prevent the intentional or unintentional exploitation of biotechnology. Although light biotechnology is not a formal classification yet but is certainly an essential sector to manage biotechnology exploitation. This idea of light biotechnology is presented by biotechnologist Kristian and physicist José in their blog post addressing the philosophical significance of biotechnology. An essential part of defending against biological threats such infectious illnesses, bioterrorism, and unintentional or intentional discharge of pathogens is biosecurity. By offering cutting-edge technologies and procedures for detection, prevention, and follow-up, several biotechnology sectors and industries have the potential to be highly beneficial in managing the issues associated with biosecurity. The use of biotechnology in the generation of pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, and vaccines to fend off biological dangers like infectious diseases and bioterrorism agents is referred as biodefense. Biocontainment refers to a variety of biotechnology-based techniques we can use to build safe containment structures and systems for the transportation and storage of biological goods. By limiting the unintended or deliberate release of pathogens, these approaches can reduce the likelihood of biosecurity incidents

Gold biotechnology is a field of biotechnology that uses bioinformatics and mathematical algorithms as its primary driving force and helps in analyzing vast amount of biological data, including DNA sequences, protein structures, and gene expression data, to further comprehend biological processes and develop novel therapeutic approaches. With the use of gold biotechnology, we can monitor the onset and spread of biological threats like infectious disease outbreaks. Next-generation sequencing technology is one of the bio-surveillance techniques that are being used to promptly identify and track their progression.  Also, by processing enormous datasets originating from numerous sources, such as satellites, sensors, and social media, artificial intelligence (AI) can be used for real-time environmental surveillance along with data analysis. This enables us to closely monitor changes in the climate, ecosystems, and pollution levels [81]. Additionally, Bioinformation technology (BiT) and AI makes it easier to transfer and preserve health-related information effectively, which is essential during pandemics and other public health emergencies. By utilizing such tools, we can more effectively handle and mitigate the effects of many catastrophic events.

Purple or violet biotechnology covers the establishment of policies, norms, and guidelines to ensure the responsible and safe use of biotechnology. It is the only biotechnology discipline that does not focus on the manufacturing of biotechnological goods. Instead, it fosters the development of new biotechnological discoveries, grants patent rights for such inventions, and conducts study on social and ethical issues that are connected to biotechnological research [83]. It is crucial to be aware that biotechnology is not a panacea, and its implementation should be conducted with caution, taking possible dangers and moral concerns into account. In conclusion, purple biotechnology focuses on the ethical, legal, regulatory, and intellectual property (IP) considerations that are important in biotechnology to ensure that the development and commercialization of novel technologies and products are carried out in a responsible and ethical manner that benefits society and biology.

Reshaping our planet

Biotechnology holds significant importance in helping our planet to address and mitigate the impact caused by humanity. As human activities continue to strain the Earth’s resources and ecosystems, biotechnology offers innovative solutions that can contribute to biological sustainability and preservation. The rapid growth of biotechnology, fueled by innovations in areas like gene therapy, synthetic biology, and many others, is one of the most outstanding aspects of this discipline. These discoveries not only altered the course of science, medicine, agriculture, and industry, but they also hold the potential to continue reshaping our planet in the years to come. However, it is imperative to carefully consider the risks and advantages of using biotechnology before doing so on a large scale. Given that it can have unanticipated effects on ecosystems, biodiversity, and human health, it is crucial to make sure that biotechnology is handled sustainably and with integrity. Fundamentally, biotechnology serves as an essential instrument in our efforts to repair the environmental harm done to our globe. It can be perceived as a way to ‘save biology’ by preserving and restoring the vital equilibrium of life on Earth by means of the integration of science and innovation. We can repair the harm caused by human activities and seek for a more peaceful coexistence with our planet through the righteous and ethical application of the different colours and fields of biotechnology, and preserving its beauty and diversity for future generations. 

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Co-authors

Abhay H. Pande is a Professor of Biotechnology at National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (NIPER) S.A.S. Nagar, India, with over 25 years of expertise in protein engineering and development of protein biopharmaceuticals. His laboratory is developing a range of biopharmaceuticals, including anti-cancer biologics, anti- inflammatory peptides, polyspecific antibodies, and prophylactic agents, all of which are at various stages of advanced pre-clinical development.

J Anakha is currently a Doctoral researcher at National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (NIPER) S.A.S Nagar, India. She holds a masters in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Central University of Kerala. She is currently working on the development of anti-angiogenic agents for clinical use.

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Abhay H. Pande is a Professor of Biotechnology at the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (NIPER) S.A.S. Nagar, India, with over 25 years of expertise in protein engineering and development of protein biopharmaceuticals. His laboratory is developing a range of biopharmaceuticals, including anti-cancer biologics, anti- inflammatory peptides, polyspecific antibodies, and prophylactic agents, all of which are at various stages of advanced pre-clinical development.

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