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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.

The combination 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 products.

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 include:

Bioinformatics: Genomics, 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.

Biotechnology: 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 and animals.

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.

Microbial Genomics: 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 environments.