Biotechnology for agriculture - green biotech

The introduction of modern biotechnology in agriculture has drastically changed the prospect of improving the productivity and the quality of many crops, in full respect of sustainability and quality of the entire food chain.
At least 30% of global agricultural production is lost because of environmental adversity: just by avoiding these losses we would be able to increase our crops by 30%. In this sense, a biotechnological intervention on the DNA of a plant can make it tolerant to a herbicide, resistant to attack by insects, parasites, viruses, bacteria and fungi, as well as resistant to cold, heat, drought or water excess, or capable of growing in less fertile soils. The increase of the yields thus obtained (productivity of a crop grown from 5% to 15-20% per hectare) is associated with other important benefits, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions linked to lower fuel consumption, due to lower number of pesticide treatments, the reduced use of fertilizers and the reduced soil tillage.

To understand the biology of plants, an essential step is represented by the mapping (sequencing) of genes specific to each species and the identification of their functions, the so-called “genomics”. Our country has a well-established position of excellence in the field of genomics applied to agriculture, as evidenced by the fact that the best Italian scientific institutions have played an absolutely primary role in the international arena, in the activity of the sequencing the genome of the grapevine, apple tree, strawberry, raspberry, pear tree, peach tree, rice, citrus, coffee, sunflower and spruce.
Still in agri-food area, biotechnology offer important tools for geneticists, such as molecular markers, portions of DNA that characterize a specific species, varieties or breeds of plants and animals. These markers are directly correlated to specific genetic traits (e.g. determining color or flavor of the fruit, or the nutrient content), and are “labels” indelibly tied to specific characters in a living organism, allowing breeders to know what characteristics organisms will have even before they occur (e.g. a high content of antioxidants). Molecular markers are used by geneticists to improve the characteristics of plants and animals that enter the food chain: this allows efficiently selecting and targeting breeds or varieties with increased productivity and the quality required. Through the use of molecular markers it is possible to know whether a plant will produce fruit of great value even before cultivating in the field; in this way the genetic improvement programs are accelerated and made more efficient in bringing more valuable products to market, or make available to farmers plants more resistant to disease or better suited to different growing environments and different climatic conditions.
The use of biotechnology in agriculture, in short, does nothing more than integrate, refine and make safer those rudimentary and empiric processes that man has always made use of by crossing and selecting the best varieties in order to make them suitable to his needs.

The “green biotech” even allow employing of plants, fruits and vegetables as “factories” to produce recombinant proteins. By inserting the gene coding for a protein in the plant species, these produce the protein, which can then be extracted, purified and then administered to the patient. Similarly, it is possible to render the plants (mainly the tobacco plant) able to produce edible vaccines, thus promoting immunization of large groups of people and creating a very relevant social response, especially in the poorest areas of the world. Again, the advantages are numerous: the extremely low cost (given the ability to extract large amounts of recombinant protein from the large amount of biomass), the absence of potentially pathogenic contaminants, no ethical problematic, visibly reduced production times if compared to other expression systems, ease of genetic manipulation and convenience of transport and administration (therefore, no need to carry vaccines under sterile conditions and controlled temperature).
Finally, innovative biotechnology have enabled the rapid development of new diagnostic methods that allow the control of the quality and state of preservation of food. For example, in the assay of chemical and biological contaminants in foods derived from livestock. In fact, enzymatic tests (e.g. to determine residues of insecticides on plants, or to assess the freshness of fish, meat and chicken), immunological tests, nucleic probes tests, or even immunoassays (e.g. to detect adulteration and food poisoning, and to diagnose, in foods such as milk, meat and eggs, the presence of infectious or unwanted agents such as hormones, antibiotics, enterotoxins, aflatoxins, pathogenic microorganisms) are applied to detect chemical and biological contaminants in food of animal or plant origin.

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