North Carolina is a hub for innovative biotechnology, or biotech, projects. But what does ‘biotech’ even mean?
What is biotechnology?
In essence, biotechnology means using living organisms or biological processes to do useful things. For example, biotechnology can be used to make medicine, vaccines, and stronger plants that produce more nutrients.
We’ve used biology to make useful things for thousands of years
Sometimes, we can use living things to perform useful functions without changing anything about them.
For example, we use yeast to ferment yogurt, bread, and beer. These are very early examples of biotechnology.
Penicillin production is an early example of biotech
The next evolution of biotechnology is optimizing these natural processes. For example, penicillin is an antibiotic that treats bacterial infections. Penicillium mold naturally produces this antibiotic.
However, you can’t just go into the wild and collect some penicillin. In the 1940’s, scientists figured out how to grow the penicillium mold in big fermentation tanks, and feed the mold the right ingredients to produce a lot of penicillin.
Biotech turned bacteria into insulin-producing machines
In recent years, we’ve learned how to manipulate living organisms by altering their DNA. This allows us to turn microorganisms like bacteria into miniature, living factories.
Take insulin, for example. Insulin is a naturally-occurring hormone made by humans and other animals. It helps regulate your body’s blood sugar levels. Insulin is a critical treatment for people with diabetes.
When insulin was first discovered, the only way we could get any to treat patients was by extracting it from animals like pigs and cows. However, animal-insulin gave some people allergic reactions.
Enter biotechnology. Scientists figured out which bit of human DNA contained the instructions for producing insulin. They then inserted that gene into bacteria. As a result, the bacteria could now create insulin identical to the kind naturally produced by humans.
Today, it is easier to edit DNA than ever before
You may have seen news stories about CRISPR/Cas-9 (or CRISPR) for short. CRISPR is a DNA-editing technique that allows scientists to add, delete, or change information at different points on an organisms’ genome.
Technologies like CRISPR/Cas-9 are revolutionizing biotechnology research. It is now easier and cheaper than ever before to accurately add or remove genes from bacteria, plants, animals, and even humans.
One example of how companies are using CRISP is North Carolina biotechnology firm Locus Bio. The RTP-based company uses gene-editing to engineer antibacterial products.
Interestingly, CRISPR was created based on a gene-editing process observed in bacteria. This means even the development of CRISPR is an example of biotechnology.
There’s a lot going on with biotech in NC. For the most recent developments, check out our article about 5 new health and biotech projects coming out of RTP.