What is Biotechnology?
Biotechnology is a branch of science that applies the concepts of modern genetic engineering to generate new products in agriculture, industrial processes or medicine. In agriculture, for example, we have genetically modified plants, which have become known as transgenic plants in Brazil.
When did Biotechnology start?
The word Biotechnology has only been adopted recently. However, for a long time since mankind has known and mastered some biological processes with the aim of producing products to their benefit. Fermentation is an evident example of that. Historical records show that as early as 1800 a.C people would make wine and other types of fermented products.
Current Biotechnology mainly involves the use of DNA. The discovery of the basic structure of the DNA molecule in 1953 by the American scientist James Watson and the British researcher Francis Crick enabled significant advances in the area of molecular biology and, consequently, in the knowledge about genes and their basic functions.
What are GMOs?
An acronym for the expression Genetically Modified Organisms, which is synonymous with transgenic organisms. It is an organism that has received a gene from another organism. Such change in its DNA allows it to show a trait it did not previously have. In nature, natural changes or mutations frequently occur. In the case of a GMO, it is the scientists who control such change and then study if the end item is equivalent to the unmodified product.
Why make GMOs?
GMOs is a response from science to problems that affect humankind, such as: diseases, hunger, climate-related problems (droughts, for example). Biotechnology offers many possibilities to improve the population's quality of life. One of the main goals is to develop plants that are resistant to pests and diseases in order to make agriculture become less dependent of the application of chemical products, improving the quality of the food that reaches consumers' tables.
It is worth pointing out that scientists did not invent these techniques in laboratories. It was by observing the nature that they noticed that some organisms have the natural ability to transfer genetic traits, such as, for instance, the soil bacteria named Agrobacterium tumefasciens, which has naturally transferred genes for millenia. Then they started to use such bacteria to transform plants in the laboratory towards a healthier agriculture.
Is this the only way to develop GMOs?
No. The evolution of genetic engineering techniques has led to faster and more efficient genetic transformation methods. The one most used today is bioballistics, in which a gene is literally bombarded into the plant that one wishes to transform. Thus the bombed gene is incorporated into the plant DNA, transforming it into a genetically modified or transgenic plant.
Are biotechnology and genetic engineering the same thing?
No. Genetic engineering is one of the branches of biotechnology, which, as mentioned in the first answer above, is a much broader science. Genetic engineering is part of the biotechnology responsible for an understanding of the role of genes and the ability to manipulate them in the laboratory. Through research, scientists can use biotechnology and gene modification to, for instance, transform a conventional crop into another one that is resistant to diseases, or develop nutritionally enriched varieties, or even improve the flavor of a food, among many possibilities.
Where are agricultural GMOs currently produced? What are the species currently produced in Brazil?
There have been more than two decades since the development of the first genetically modified food product in the world - a longer lasting tomato created in California, United States. Twenty years later, the market for GMOs in agriculture is increasingly expressive. For every 100 hectares planted with soybeans today in the planet, 80 are sown with seeds with modified genes. In the case of maize, they are 30 for every 100.
In these past two decades, the area with transgenic crops has risen 100 times, from 1.7 million hectares to 175.2 million. The United States leads the ranking, followed by Brazil and Argentina.
In Brazil, 40.3 million hectares were sown with GM soybean, maize and cotton seeds in 2013, a growth of 10% in comparison with the previous year. Today, out of the crops that are cultivated with biotechnology in the country, 92% of all soybeans, 90% of maize and 47% of the cotton are genetically modified.
How can GMOs be used?
The choices for GMO applications are countless and can cover the most different areas. In sustainable agriculture, for example, biotechnology allows one to produce more food, with quality, at lower costs and without the need to increase the crop area. Nowadays, GMOs have already been significantly contributing to support the increased demand for yield per hectare, which is the plantation area used by the farmer. As there are not many agricultural frontiers (new lands to farm) left, it is necessary to produce more in each planted hectare. But, besides the increase in productivity, biotechnology can bring other benefits such as more nutritious plants or with a healthier composition.
Are GMOs safe?
The Brazilian Biosecurity Law (11,105/05), which regulates the activities with GMOs and biotechnology activities in general, is among the strictest laws of the world. This legislation determines that, from initial discovery the stage of being a commercial product, a GMO has to go through many studies, which take approximately 10 years of research. Such studies aim at ensuring the food and environmental safety of the end product. It is only after the product is analyzed and approved by CTNBio that it will be allowed to go into the market. That is, GMO production is a legal and legitimate activity, ruled by specific legislation under rigid biosafety criteria.
What is CTNBio?
It is the National Technical Commission on Biosafety. Under the Ministry of Science and Technology, the commission involves specialists in several areas of scientific knowledge, who meet monthly to analyze all research proposals involving GMOs in all areas, and not just agriculture. This group evaluates each genetically modified product, considering possible impacts to the environment, to human and animal health, and to agriculture. At the end of all the analyses, CTNBio issues a conclusive report, clearing or not clearing the product in question for trade. More than 120 public and private institutions have already been accredited by the agency to develop research with genetically modified organisms. Embrapa is one of them.
What is Embrapa's role in this segment?
Embrapa - the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, with over 40 years of experience, is a world reference in research and technologies for agriculture.
Embrapa has developed studies on the genetic transformation of plants since the 1980s, with the purpose of contributing to a more productive and healthier agriculture, with the development of disease tolerant or resistant varieties, aiming at reducing the applications of agrochemicals in agricultural crops. This type of research is being developed with several agricultural species, like soybeans, beans, rice, maize, cotton, lettuce, potato, coffee, sugarcane and papaya, among others.
Running parallel with such research, Embrapa has also developed studies that represent the forefront of biotechnology, known as third-generation GMOs. At this stage, scientists from the corporation are committed to the development of a new technological platform to express molecules of high added value: the use of genetically modified plants, animals and microorganisms as biofactories to produce inputs such as medicine or staple fibers of interest to the industry, among others. Biofactories represent economical and safe means for the large scale production of inputs.
Research with GMOs at Embrapa is coordinated by one of its 46 units distributed in the entire Brazilian territory: Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology, in Brasília, DF. This Unit gathers most of the corporation's research in this field.
Have genetically modified products been approved for commercial cultivation in Brazil?
Embrapa has already obtained CTNBio's approval for the commercial cultivation of two genetically modified products: the golden mosaic virus resistant GM beans and the imidazolinone herbicide-tolerant GM soybeans named Cultivance®, in partnership with BASF.
What are the advantages of the GM beans developed by Embrapa in comparison with conventional varieties?
Let us imagine, for instance, a plant contaminated by virus or bacteria. Is it better to treat it with medication or to prevent it from falling sick? Of course the second choice is best. Then we are going to analyze a real example: Brazilians' daily beans - which supply a delicious and highly nutritional combination with rice- is the victim of a virus called golden mosaic. When this virus contaminates bean crops, its causes losses of 100%. It is the worst threat to this food in Brazil.
Embrapa, which has always been at the forefront of agricultural research, started to study means to control this virus based on genetic engineering techniques.
Scientists from two Embrapa units - from Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology (Brasilia, DF) and Embrapa Rice and Beans (Goiânia, GO) reached a method that can produce plants that are resistant to golden mosaic.
They have discovered that, by inserting small fragments of the virus in the bean plant, they could activate their immune system, making it immune to golden mosaic. Just like a vaccine!
After the discovery, they multiplied the plants in the laboratory and started to test them in the fields, exposing them to the virus. The results were very satisfactory and the plants were not contaminated, proving their immunity to the golden mosaic virus.
From the time when it started to be studied in Embrapa's laboratories until the approval for commercial cultivation by CTNBio in 2011, it went through exhausting field tests in all the Brazilian bean producing regions with the aim of assessing food and environmental security.
On top of being safe, Embrapa's GM beans is a significant example of social and dietary impact of the use of genetic engineering. In Brazil, beans are an extremely important crop, as they are mostly produced by smallholders, with about 80% of the production and the cultivated area in properties with less than 100 hectares.
The GM bean varieties ensure economic and environmental advantages, with reduced losses, guaranteed harvests and reduced applications of agrochemicals.
What are the benefits of the Cultivance® soybeans?
Developed in partnership between Embrapa and BASF, the Cultivance® soybeans were the first developed GM plant entirely developed in Brazil. Such achievement marked a new era for the biotechnological activities of the companies and is the result of over 10 years of joint developments. BASF and Embrapa share the belief that plant biotechnology, applied according to the principles of sustainability, brings important results to society, as it allows Brazilian farmers to have access to advanced technological alternatives, with economic gains and greater efficiency in the responsibility of conserving natural resources.
The Cultivance® soybeans are tolerant to the imidazolinone class of herbicides and it is estimated that they can take up 15 to 20% of the market for GMOs in Brazil.
Are there other GM products in development at Embrapa?
Yes, there are many others. The research developed by the Unit in this field seeks sustainable solutions for the agricultural and food challenges of the current and future generations, such as: resistance to pests and diseases, tolerance to climate stresses, among many other traits of agronomic interest.
At the moment, the following are being developed at Embrapa:
- Coffee that is resistant to the coffee borer beetle (Hypothenemus hampei), the most harmful coffee pest, capable of causing annual losses of about US$ 500 million..
- Cotton that is resistant to the boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis), one of the worst problems faced by cotton growers in Brazil, and whose control can reach 25% of the production cost.
- Sugarcane plants that are resistant to the banana stem borer (Telchin licus licus), the worst pest in the Northeastern region of Brazil, where it causes annual losses of about R$ 34 million, and with drought tolerance.
- Lettuce with 15 times more folic acid (or vitamin B9) than conventional varieties.
What are first, second and third-generation GMOs?
GM plants can be classified into three generations, according to their chronological order of development and the characteristics presented by each generation.
- 1st Generation - gathers genetically modified plants with agronomic traits of resistance to herbicides, pests and viruses. They comprise the first group of modified plants. They have spread into the fields in the 1980s and constitute the most traded group of GM seeds in the world.
- 2nd Generation - This group includes plants whose nutritional characteristics have been improved both quantitatively as qualitatively. It comprises a group of plants that are not well spread in the world; nevertheless, their experimental fields are already significant.
- 3rd Generation - Represented by a group of plants destined to the synthesis of special products, such as vaccines, hormones, antibodies and plastics. Such plants are at experimentation stages and should soon reach the market.
Does Embrapa develop third generation GMOs?
Yes, it does. In parallel with second-generation GMOs, Embrapa has already made efforts in research characterized as third generation. At this stage, studies are aimed at the production of plants that work as vaccines and medication, among other applications.
One of the main efforts in the area is the development of a new technological platform to express molecules of high added value: the use of genetically modified plants, animals and microorganisms as biofactories to produce inputs such as medicine or staple fibers of interest to the industry, among others. Biofactories represent economical and safe means for the large scale production of inputs.
Another line of research is the production of biopharmaceuticals, or biological medical drugs, which are obtained from biological sources or processes, based on the industrial use of genetically modified microorganisms or cells. Such biotechnological processes are part of health-aimed biotechnology, which also includes diagnoses, cell and stem cell therapies, gene therapies and vaccines, among others.
By investing in research with biopharmaceuticals, Embrapa expects to have such drugs reach the pharmaceutical market with lower costs, since they are produced directly in plants, bacteria or milk. There is evidence that the use of biofactories can reduce the costs of producing recombinant protein by up to 50 times.