From Dolly the sheep to CRISPR: A look at the evolution of Biotechnology

DOLLY was all dolled up. This was the moment genetic engineering was used to create the world’s first cloned mammal, ‘‘Dolly the Sheep,” named after an American singer Dolly Parton, on July 5th 1996, at the Roslin Institute in Scotland. It was created using the Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer technique and was a breakthrough in the history of science. Its creation proved that an exact clone of an animal could be made by using specialized cells from that animal. The aim behind the creation of a genetically modified sheep was to obtain therapeutic proteins in its milk, but it also set the scientific tables for new milestones. It laid the foundations for improvements in medicine and especially provided insights for the development of Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells.

Dolly (sheep) - Wikipedia
Dolly, Image: WP

Ancient biotechnology served its best in improving the standards of livestock, and also laid bread and cheese on our lunch tables. Later, when Classical Biotechnology stepped in, genetics and molecular biology gained fam, and came into practice. It transformed into what we know today as “Modern Biotechnology” in the 20th century. Genetic manipulation, cloning and recombinant DNA technology are all results of advances in biotechnology.

The beginning of a revolution

Until 2012, recombinant DNA technology remained the only working method for genetic modifications. Although it was high in cost, lacked precision, less efficient, it was still considered as the cornerstone of genetic engineering, in addition to DNA sequencing. Polymerase Chain Reaction went along in the road towards better engineering. Due to a number of limitations of recombinant technology was confined to unicellular organisms, accounting for  applications in medicine and food industries. Bacteria were particularly engineered to produce quantities of insulin and hormones. Recombinant technology then became a hot topic for research in labs, and finally “Genome Editing” emerged. Editing actually manipulated the genome by either addition or subtraction, and even replacement of the genes. Site-specific breaks were induced in the DNA, using enzymes capable of cutting DNA.

What Is Recombinant DNA Technology?
Image: ThoughtCo

Finally, the natural repair system filled those gaps. With the discovery of zinc-finger nucleases (ZFN) and transcription like effector nucleases (TALENS), it was possible to control the genetic manipulation. Although the discovery of ZFN and TELNS was a great achievement, yet their resources and expertise were compromised. Finally, when CRISPR/CAS was discovered, it emerged as a new, precise and efficient tool for genome editing.

CRISPR is an acronym for “Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat”. These are short segments of viral DNA which are inserted into a bacterial genome. These segments act as templates for interference RNA synthesis which recognizes viral genome and mark it for attack by nucleases.  A prominent nuclease is Cas 9, but others have also been discovered, ameliorating genetic engineering.  If we consider genetic engineering a first step, then CRISPR is a quantum leap, that has revolutionized biotechnology. This uplift contributed in the field of synthetic biology, xenotransplantation, nanotechnology, transgenic development, 3D printing, artificial intelligence and gene therapy. All of these areas are the emerging biotechnologies.

Matching CRISPR to the Job Improves the Safety, Efficiency of the  Gene-Editing Tool - UT News
Image: UT News

Reigning the Future

Emerging biotechnology is now running to make new products for the betterment of humans and is greatly striving to reach major sustainable development goals. It has the ability to benefit the status quo greatly. For example, to provide better health and find cure of fatal diseases, continuous research is paving the way for promising treatments. In addition, it has played a promising role in decreasing the ratio of food-borne diseases. Development of protein microarrays is also a fruit of biotechnology and has eased proteome studies. Although emerging biotechnology plays a very important role, it poses certain risks to humans and their environment. For instance, CRISPR is easier to use and cheaper than other genetic engineering tools, which brings forward many biosafety concerns.  Proper surveillance in this case is mandatory to avoid any kind of bioterrorism.  In order to cope with other possible risks, there is a need to keenly assess any advancement made under its umbrella. Developing suitable and effective biosafety guidelines will be the best resort. Institutional, national and international biosafety committees are responsible for bringing into action all the biosafety guidelines. All in all, as days are passing by the world is becoming a better place, but this increases our responsibility as a member of this community.

Biotechnology in Pakistan started back in 1985. Since then, cotton and rice have been much improved. Genetic modifications favoring biotic and abiotic resistance and quality have already been done in few crop plants. E.g. Bt cotton has already proved its worth by improving both the quality and quantity. Biotechnologists in Pakistan are still working to introduce new transgenic plants which are more resistant, high in nutrition and give high yield. This will ultimately improve Pakistan’s economy, as it is still a developing country, and heavily relies on agriculture for economic support .Biotechnology can also help to improve the floriculture sector.  It has already created a significant impact and has transformed biology and genetic engineering. Pakistan is likely to set foot in this arena. Along with other Asian countries, Pakistan needs to initiate joint programs to advance in the implementation of biotechnology, which has the propensity to alleviate many challenges in the region.

Brighter Times

Today in 2021, the trends in biotechnology include the productions of monoclonal antibodies, the development of biosimilar drugs, cell and gene therapies, and finally vaccine development, particularly against COVID-19. Biotechnologists across the world are leaving no stone unturned to reorganize and make advancements in life sciences for the betterment of humanity, and to ultimately meet the Sustainable Development Goals. Recombinant DNA technology is central to serve these advancements. We are all aware of the fruits Information Technology has blessed us with, and now the world is going to witness the era of biotechnology, where nutritious food,  high yielding crops, effective medicines, better health, and progressing research are a priority.

In the end we all know, serving humanity is all what science is about, whether it is cloning a sheep or CRISPR/CAS9 based genome editing. Let’s all take a minute to appreciate all the biotechnologists all around the world and how far we have come. Serve and smile!


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