FAQs: Biotechnology and Its Applications


What is Biotechnology?

Biotechnology is a modern technology that makes use of organisms (or parts thereof) to: make or modify products; improve and develop microorganisms, plants or animals; or develop organisms for specific purposes in a more
precise manner.

Tools of biotechnology can be used to make products for agricultural, industrial, medical, and environmental applications.

How is biotechnology different from the traditional way of improving crops?

Biotechnology allows scientists to precisely introduce a desired character by being able to insert only specific genes into a plant. Traditional crop improvement entails a long process of hybridization and selection. It involves numerous combinations of traits that require a large population to be able to select a plant with the desired trait.

What is the scientific basis of biotechnology?

All plants, animals, and living organisms have cells, the basic unit of life.  Within cells are hereditary materials generally composed of deoxyribonucleic acids (DNA). These hereditary materials (that determine a trait) are called
genes. Through biotechnology, the gene fragments can be inserted from one organism to another, within related and unrelated species, to improve specific traits.

What are the tools used in biotechnology?

Gene Cloning – identification and isolation of specific DNA fragments that are introduced into a self-replicating genetic element so that the fragment can be reproduced and expressed in the target organism.  Tissue Culture – a technique that involves culturing plant parts and animal cells under laboratory conditions.

Microbial culture – a method of multiplying microbial organisms.

DNA-marker technology – involves the identification of DNA fragments associated with a certain desired trait and its utilization.

Genetic Engineering – the manipulation, introduction, and expression of specific genes or DNA in the target organisms. This is the method used in developing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The technology is often called “modern biotechnology” or “gene technology,” and sometimes, “recombinant DNA technology.”

Why do we need crop biotechnology?

To be able to develop crops with increased yield, improved food, nutrient and other agronomic qualities, multiple disease and insect resistance, and tolerance to abiotic stresses in a short and precise manner.

What is a GM/biotech crop?

A GM/biotech or transgenic crop is a plant that has a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.

How are novel genes inserted into plants?

Several methods currently exist for introducing transgenes into plant genomes. The most commonly used involves a device called “biolistic or gene gun.” The DNA to be introduced into the plant cells is coated on to tiny gold or tungsten particles. These particles are then physically shot into plantcells. Some of the DNA comes off and is incorporated into the DNA of the recipient plant.

Another method uses the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens to introduce the gene(s) of interest into the plant DNA through transfection.The cells are screened to identify which successfully took up the desired gene and are
then evaluated for the expression of the new trait. When crops reach the field stage, the seeds are sown in the field and grown the same way as any other crop. These plants just have the new and desired trait.

Why make GM/biotech crops?

GM technology can address problems that cannot be solved through conventional crop improvement methods.
It enables plant breeders to bring together in one plant useful genes from a wide range of sources, not just from within the crop species or closely related plants.

This powerful tool allows plant breeders to attain a desired trait combination faster and address urgent
concerns like the development of crops that are resistant to biotic (diseases and pests) or abiotic stresses (drought
and waterlogging), and with increased yield and improved food and nutrient quality.

How do you select the variety of a crop to be improved?

Popular varieties are selected to be the target of crop improvement through genetic engineering. These varieties are already being widely planted and accepted by the farmers but needs improvement in one or more characters.

Who produces GM crops?

Most early generation GM crops were developed in industrialized countries mainly in North America and Western Europe. Recently, however, many research and development on GM crops are being done in developing
countries, like the Philippines, which have established the capacity for genetic engineering.

What were the first GM/biotech plants?

GM petunia and GM tobacco were produced in 1983 in laboratories in the USA and Belgium.

When was the first GM/biotech crop commercialized?

In 1994, Calgene’s delayed-ripening tomato (Flavr-Savr™) became the first genetically modified food crop to be produced and consumed in an industrialized country. In 1995, GM cotton with resistance to herbicide and GM corn
with insect resistance were subsequently commercialized. GM corn is now planted in developing countries like the Philippines.

What are the GM/biotech crops available in the market?

Most of the GM crops currently on the market have an increased level of crop protection through the introduction of resistance against plant pests and diseases caused by insects, viruses, or other pathogens. Others have an increased tolerance towards herbicides.

Insect resistance is achieved by incorporating the gene for toxin production from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into the crop. This bacterium has been widely used as conventional microbial insecticide in agriculture since the 1930s.

GM crops that permanently produce this toxin have been shown to require lower quantities of insecticides in specific situations, e.g. where pest pressure is high. Several Bt corn varieties are already propagated and
marketed in the Philippines.

Virus resistance is achieved through the introduction of a gene from certain disease-causing viruses. Virus resistance makes plants less susceptible to these viral diseases, minimizing damage to the plant and resulting in higher crop yields. Papaya ringspot virus resistant papayas are already being cultivated and consumed in the USA and China.
Herbicide tolerance is achieved through the introduction of a gene from a bacterium conveying resistance to some herbicides. This allows herbicides to be used to control weeds without harming the crop. Herbicide tolerant soybean is the most planted GM crop in the world – 75% of the global area devoted to soybean is planted to GM soybean.

Where are GM/biotech crops grown?

The area planted to GM crops increased from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 160 million hectares in 2011, with an
increasing proportion grown by developing countries.

In 2011, there were 29 countries planting biotech crops, comprised of 19 developing countries and 10 industrial
countries. They were, in order of hectarage, USA, Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada, China, Paraguay, Pakistan, South Africa, Uruguay, Bolivia, Australia, Philippines, Myanmar, Burkina Faso, Mexico, Spain, Colombia, Chile, Honduras, Portugal, Czech Republic, Poland, Egypt, Slovakia, Romania, Sweden, Costa Rica, and Germany (James, 2011).

In the Philippines, the genetically engineered corn resistant to borer insects was first commercially planted in 2002. With the subsequent introduction of a biotech corn resistant to herbicides, and those with combined traits, an
estimated area of 514,000 hectares have been planted by 270,000 farmers in 2010. And in 2011, it was estimated that 322,000 farmers planted GM corn in 644,000 hectares (James, 2011).

Where in the world are GM/biotech crops not grown?

As of 2011, GM crops are grown in 29 countries. Aside from this, 31 countries are importing GM crops for direct food and feed use or processing, including Korea, Japan, and Turkey, which started approving biotech crops for import in 2011. All in all, a total of 60 countries are directly propagating and/or importing GM crops for direct food and feed use or processing. Some of the countries not included in the list are currently conducting field tests, such as Indonesia.

Why are GM/biotech crops not grown in some parts of the world?

Countries which do not grow GM crops have their own internal reasons, some of which include: the absence of a biosafety regulatory framework, public non-acceptance of GM products and trade issues relating to organic

What are the benefits of GM/biotech crops?

Among the documented benefits of GM crops include:

  • Higher crop yields
  • Reduced farm costs
  • Increased farm profit
  • Improved health and cleaner and safer environment
  • Improved soil quality

Are GM/biotech crops appropriate for developing countries?

Developing countries can benefit from GM crops by being able to increase food production, lower production cost and food prices, improve food quality and preserve the environment. The new generation of nutritionally enhanced GM crops could also play a key role in helping alleviate micronutrient malnutrition and generate affordable and accessible pharmaceuticals and vaccines for many developing countries.

What are the potential risks of GM/biotech crops?

With every emerging technology, there are potential risks which regulatory institutions review before they allow a GM crop to be grown commercially.

These include:

  • The danger of unintentionally introducing allergens, mutagens, carcinogens, teratogens and other antinutrition factors in foods that are detrimental to health.
  • The likelihood of transgenes escaping from cultivated crops into other close and wild relatives.
  • The potential for target pests to evolve resistance to the toxins produced by GM crops.
  • The risk of these toxins affecting non-target organisms.

What are the other potential benefits/uses of GM/biotech crops?

Food production – this is an area in which biotechnology plays a significant role in the production of ingredients, vitamins, starter cultures and enzymes for food processing.

Agriculture – fruits and vegetables can be improved in appearance, taste, nutrient content, storage life, resistance to certain pests and even stability under unfavorable climatic conditions.

Environmental management – biotechnology offers new opportunities for the protection of the environment. For example, genetically modified bacteria may one day be used to convert organic wastes to useful products or clean up
oil spills.

Medicine – some types of insulin are examples of biotechnology products. Biotechnology also offers new methods for producing critical vaccines that cost cheaper.

Will GM/biotech crops wipe out and replace varieties from traditional breeding? Why?

No, GM crops will in no way replace varieties from traditional breeding because genetic modification is only conducted to introduce important major genes to the already established and bred varieties. Genetic modification,
therefore, is conducted to further improve the already existing popular and high-yielding varieties.

Likewise, a transgenic variety can be used in crop improvement and breeding programs.

Are GM/biotech foods assessed differently from traditional foods? Why?

Yes. With GM foods, most national authorities consider that specific assessments are necessary. Specific systems have been set up for the rigorous evaluation of GM organisms and GM foods relative to both human and other
animals’ health and the environment. Similar evaluations are generally not performed for traditional foods. Hence there is a significant difference in the evaluation process prior to marketing for these two groups of food.

Generally, consumers consider that traditional foods (that have often been eaten for thousands of years) are safe. When new foods are developed by natural methods, some of the existing characteristics of foods can be altered, either in a positive or a negative way.

National food authorities may be called upon to examine traditional foods, but this is not always the case. Indeed, new plants developed through traditional breeding techniques may not be evaluated rigorously using risk assessment techniques.
Adapted from:
Information Resource Kit on Biotechnology produced by:

Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications
Institute of Plant Breeding, University of the Philippines Los Baños
Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development
Program for Biosafety Systems Southeast Asia
Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture
United States Agency for International Development

James, Clive. 2011. Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2011.  ISAAA Brief No. 43.  ISAAA: Ithaca, NY.