Biotechnology is the use of biological organisms to produce products and services of value to society.

The University of Queensland Biotechnology Program recognizes the worldwide need for new medicines and vaccines and the need to feed a growing population whilst minimizing the ecological footprint of human activity . It strongly supports the application of biotechnology towards meeting these needs.

1) New medicines and vaccines and clean food and water.

In 1750, the life expectancy at birth in Western Europe was approximately 33 years.

The most dramatic increase has been in the post 1940s. The application of biotechnology has contributed to this increase:

  • Vaccination - begun in the late 18th century against smallpox using a naturally occurring virus (cowpox).
  • Antisepsis-from knowledge of the bacterial origin of disease.
  • Anaesthetics and analgaesics-purified from plants and marine organisms and improved to reduce side effects, using genetic engineering (eg. new forms of aspirin that do not damage the stomach).
  • Antibiotics-produced by microorganisms and fungi and now produced using genetic engineering.
  • Clean water and food-from knowledge of the bacterial origin of disease and introduction of water treatment plants which use microorganisms to remove waste.

Biotechnology also allows the production of hormones like insulin without having to purify from human tissue. The end product is therefore of greater purity, safer and is as effective as insulin produced by the older methods.

2) Traditional and modern biotechnologies should be applied side by side to address the need for food:

  • Introduction of resistance to plant disease caused by viruses. (For example- the Hawaiian papaya industry was rescued by the introduction of virus resistant strains produced by genetic engineering (at Cornell and the University of Hawaii).
  • Reduction of tillage by introduction of herbicide resistance into plants .
  • Resistance to insect pests, minimization of the use of toxic organic pesticides. Traditional growers have previously sprayed Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) onto crops. Genetic engineering allows crops to produce their own Bt , which is the same as those used in sprays, but does not require repeated application. Studies at US (Rutgers) and Chinese Universities (Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences) on the adoption of Bt cotton have shown that economic benefits flow to the small farmer.
  • Increasing nutritional value of crops (rice containing greater levels of vitamin A produced by Ingo Potrykus in Switzerland, for example).
  • Increasing salt and acid resistance of crops (salt resistant tomatoes produced at University of Toronto and UC Davis).
  • Inceasing the efficiency of harvesting and processing (by synchronization of fruit ripening, at The University of Queensland).
  • Increasing the storage life of crops (reducing ethylene production by fruits, at The University of Queensland).

We must keep open all of our technological options in the quest for human survival. Some of these attributes can be introduced quickly and cheaply using traditional biotechnology (plant breeding) whilst other attributes require modern biotechnology (genetic engineering). The latter method allows better control and consistency of genetic alterations than traditional methods and makes possible the generation of characteristics unattainable by traditional means.

Both approaches require the preservation of natural genetic resources. These are the raw material for future crop improvement. We will also need the tools of modern biotechnology to catalogue genetic resources and to monitor the progress of our ecosystem management programs. The technological improvements need to be combined with improvements in distributive systems and strengthened property rights in developing nations so that the benefits of modern biotechnology can be shared as widely as possible.

Prof. Ross Barnard

Biotechnology Program Coordinator

The University of Queensland.