Biotechnology & Genomics Overview
Through national program leadership and competitive
funding opportunities, NIFA provides support for research,
education, and outreach in the development and use of biotechnology
and genomics. This support involves promoting cutting-edge
scientific research for development of beneficial new tools
and products that seek new and better ways to sustain and
improve agriculture, to protect our environment, and to generate
new economic opportunities for agricultural communities.
of biotechnology and genomics programs is greatly aiding
our nation’s ability to
confront the many challenges facing production, management,
and sustainability of U.S. agriculture. These challenges
include enhanced crop yields and quality, development of
stress-tolerant crop varieties, improved nutritional content
of foods, increased threats to biosecurity, bioaccumulation
of toxins in the environment, and management and detection
of invasive pests and diseases. Biotechnology and genomics
programs can provide new ways to use plants and microbes,
resulting in improved environmental quality and economic
sustainability of communities. So that biotechnology and
genomics can fulfill its promise, programs also support risk
assessment of biotechnology as well as provide education
and outreach on the advantages and proper use of biotechnology
A general definition of biotechnology is the
use of biology or biological processes to develop helpful
products and services. In this sense, humans have been using
biotechnology (biology to create products) for centuries,
for example in the breeding of farm animals for offspring
with desirable traits and the use of yeast to make bread,
beer, and wine. A modern definition of biotechnology is
the set of biological techniques originally resulting from
basic research, specifically molecular biology and genetic
engineering, and now used for research and product development.
Alternatively, biotechnology can be defined as the scientific
manipulation of organisms at the molecular genetic level
to make beneficial products.
Modern agricultural biotechnology makes use
of genetic engineering techniques, the alteration of genetic
material through molecular biology, to modify living organisms
such as plants, animals, and microbes.
A chief advantage of genetic engineering is
that a specific gene encoding a desirable trait can be precisely
transferred from one organism into another. In traditional
breeding, a set of genes encoding both desirable and undesirable
traits is transferred to the offspring, and continued breeding,
sometimes over long periods of time, is necessary to remove
the unwanted traits (genes).
Another advantage of genetic engineering over
traditional breeding is that genes can be transferred from
one species to another, for example from an animal into a
microbe. In this way, the gene for human insulin was transferred
to a bacterium, allowing rapid and efficient production of
large quantities of insulin for use by diabetics.
Today, genomics, the study of all the genetic
material in an organism, is leading to tremendous advances
in biotechnology. Genomics is both generating new tools and
techniques and producing huge amounts of biological data.
The deluge of genomic data has even led to the new science
of bioinformatics, which enables the data to be stored, accessed,
compared, and used. As a result of genomics, genes for desirable
traits can be rapidly identified and used to create new biotechnology
products. Through NIFA activities in leadership and funding,
biotechnology and genomics offer varied solutions for the
problems facing agriculture, the environment, and society
today and in the future.
NIFA programs in this National Emphasis Area
the study of all the genetic information in an organism,
is providing huge amounts of data for scientists to analyze.
The new science of bioinformatics allows scientists to store,
analyze, and compare the otherwise overwhelming amounts of
genomic data. Bioinformatics has shown that microbial genomic
data can help scientists understand complex organisms such
as plants and animals.
Bioinformatics also helps scientists predict
which part of a genome encodes a desirable trait. Using bioinformatics
tools, scientists can search genomic data and identify a
region important for a desired trait; then, through biotechnology
methods, transfer that trait to another organism to create
a useful product or outcome, for example converting a drought-sensitive
crop to a drought-tolerant crop. Bioinformatics, then, allows
genomic data to be used quickly and effectively in biotechnology.
is leading to many exciting new products and strategies that
can benefit agriculture, human health, and the environment.
Plants, animals, microbes, insects, and nematodes are all
subjects of biotechnology research, uses, and products. For
example, plant and animal biotechnology is increasing productivity,
quality, disease resistance, and health of agricultural plants
Through modifications of animal, plant, or
microbial systems, biotechnology is now leading to cost effective
production of materials such as pharmaceuticals, vaccines,
and industrial chemicals. It is also reducing environmental
problems by lowering pesticide use and remediating contaminated
soils. As required for any new technology, research and education
are assessing the positive and negative effects of biotechnology
as well as examining social and economic impacts.
Microbes are the oldest form of life on Earth. Although
they are considered simple organisms and are too small
to be seen with the naked eye, microbes are extremely diverse
and adaptable. Their impact can be negative, such as causing
disease, or positive such as maintaining the Earth’s
atmosphere and promoting plant growth. They are the source
of many products, including enzymes for research, antimicrobial
agents, and antibiotics.
The study of microbial genomes (all the genetic
information in the microbe) enables scientists both to understand
how microbes live and to isolate microbial genes for use
in biotechnology. The combination of microbial genomics and
biotechnology is leading to development of new diagnostic
tools, better vaccines, improved treatments for disease,
better detection of pollutants, and cleanup of contaminated