Where do you think biotechnology happens?
What about here?
If this was a multiple-choice question the answer would be D. All of the above.
At its core, biotechnology is using what we know about biology to solve problems and make useful products. This is something that humans have been doing for thousands of years. Our ancestors grew and selectively bred various plants for food; domesticated animals; and developed processes that used microorganisms to make cheese, wine, and medicine. Today we still use many of these processes and products.
In the last 100 years, the speed of biotechnology innovation has only accelerated. Consequently, you don’t have to travel far to find biotechnology in action! Read on to learn about some cool, useful, and unexpected biotechnologies that are hiding in plain sight or cut to the chase and discover them yourself with an at-home scavenger hunt using this link.
BIOTECHNOLOGY IN THE KITCHEN
Meat Tenderizer: This powder might be found on your spice shelf. It doesn’t add much flavor, but it does change the texture of tougher meat cuts like chuck roast or hanger steak. This is because it contains a mixture of the enzymes papain (originally found in papayas) and bromelain (originally found in pineapples). Enzymes enable and speed up chemical reactions. In this case, these two enzymes help break down other proteins by helping water to break the peptide bonds between individual amino acids. This reduces the amount of collagen in meat which leads to a more tender and favorable dish.
Cooking Oil: If you have cooking oil in your baking supplies the label probably says “no trans-fats”. Several large studies in the ’90s and early 2000’s linked the regular consumption of trans-fat to heart disease and prompted a broad push to eliminate these from our foods. In response, agricultural biotechnologies modified corn, soybeans, and canola crops to produce oils that contain less saturated fats and no trans fats. Similar recombinant DNA technologies are also used to make these plants easier to grow and to reduce the number of pesticides needed.
Watermelon: As early as the 14th century, watermelons were being selectively bred for their sweetness. What these early food designers didn’t know was that the red color associated with the interior of a watermelon is genetically linked with the DNA sequence responsible for sweetness. The result is that the watermelons you find in the grocery store today not only have a sweet taste but also a beautiful bright red interior.
(No) Peanuts: If you or one of your family members are allergic to nuts – or to another food group such as shellfish, soy, eggs, or wheat – your kitchen may be an allergen-free zone thanks to biotechnology tests like ELISAs (Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assays). These tests are used routinely by food manufactures to make sure that products labeled as “nut-free” do not contain any nut proteins.
BIOTECHNOLOGY IN THE BATHROOM
Shampoo bottle: Many personal care products now come housed in bioplastics. These plastics are made from renewable biomass sources like corn starch, sugarcane, woodchips, or even recycled food waste. There are two major types of bioplastics: (1) polylactic acid or PLA’s that are made through a series of chemical reactions and (2) polyhydroxyalkanoates or PHAs that are made with the help of microorganisms.
Lactase: If you or someone in your family has an intolerance to milk you might have a bottle of lactase in your medicine closet. This is an enzyme that is naturally produced in the intestines of many mammals and that breaks down lactose – the sugar that gives milk its sweetness. However, in people who are lactose intolerant not enough lactase is produced. This causes consumed lactase to stay in the gut where it feeds a variety of detrimental gut microbes that in turn cause gastrointestinal discomfort. Luckily, these individuals can counteract this process, and avoid its uncomfortable effects, by supplementing with manufactured lactase.
Exfoliating Face Mask: Remember the enzymes papain and bromelain mentioned earlier? These two proteases (aka protein breaking enzymes) are also found in several beauty products although in reduced concentrations! Here they help users slough off outer layers of dead skin by breaking down keratin proteins that keep dead cells attached to the face. These enzymes also have anti-inflammatory properties that help treat redness in skins.
Contact cleaning solution: (A theme for this list is that enzymes are everywhere.) In this case, they’re in many contact cleaning solutions. When lenses are placed on the eye they are quickly covered with a layer of protein-rich film. These proteins reduce friction and make the lenses more comfortable to wear. However, over time these proteins can become fixed to the lenses and eventually cause discomfort and infection. To combat this, many users periodically soak their lenses in a solution containing the enzyme subtilisin A. This enzyme also breaks down proteins which then makes them easy to wash off. (As more users switch to disposable contacts and multi-user cleaners this method is become rarer but is not yet obsolete.)
Don’t stop there! A host of biotechnologies are behind the colorful/clean/comfy clothes in your closet; the antibiotics and other medicines you take when you’re sick; and the energy you may use to light/heat your home and drive your car. See what you can find!