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Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science

Five reasons you should care about biotechnology

by Connie Karambelas
April 22, 2010

While jobs, health care and going green are prominent topics of daily disccusion, Collins Jones is intent on letting people know that biotechnology is every bit as relevant, resonating within each of these issues.

“My friend always says that the easiest way to explain biotech is that it uses Mother Nature to enhance our lives,” said Jones, an expert in the field who spoke Tuesday at Northwestern University’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute. 

Jones, employed by biotechPrimer, a company whose main function is to explain biotechnology to non-scientists, spoke to journalists in advance of the industry's annual convention, May 3-6 at Chicago's McCormick Place. 

Perhaps the best way to appreciate the importance of biotechnology – the use of cellular and bio-molecular processes to solve problems and make useful products like pharmaceuticals and energy – is to understand how it affects people in their daily lives: 

Jobs: The biotechnology industry in Illinois currently has 55,000 employees and is one of the few industries that is still hiring, Collins said.

“[These] jobs pay really well,” said David Miller, CEO of iBio, a company that advocates public policy at the local, state and federal levels. 

Health care: For scientists and researchers within the biotech field, the objective is to diagnose, prevent, and cure or manage disease. Within the biotech field, there is constant innovation, Jones said. 

Drugs: One of the field’s recent developments is pharmacogenomics, personalized medicine that would use a patient’s genes to predict a certain drug’s effectives and safety, Jones said. 

Biotechnology has been used to create drugs and find new ways to cure or manage disease or disorders. Viagra was initially formulated to lower blood pressure but during clinical trials, men started reporting an unexpected side effect.And so, Viagra as a drug for erectile dysfunction was born, Jones said.  

Food: The biotech field in the agriculture sector works on improving the quality of food and also creating ways to feed more people more efficiently, Jones said. Within the biotech field, fruits, vegetables and grains have been produced that are resistant to weeds, disease and insects. They also reduce soil erosion and the need for pesticides. 

Biotech corn has been genetically modified to be resistant to insects. With no adverse effects to account for, biotech corn has been labeled as nutritious as non-genetically modified corn, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Going Green: Biotechnology involves the development of biofuels and biomaterials like bioplastics, Jones said. Bioethanol is a type of fuel derived from sugar or starch crops.

Bioethanol generates about eight to 10 times more energy than is required for its production. One gallon of ethanol replaces 30 gallons of oil that is imported, he said.