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Clueless About Biotech? Here's a Primer

The $1.5 billion North Carolina Research Campus continues to take shape in Kannapolis. Some universities invoved in the bio-tech venture have begun hiring scientists to conduct nutrient research at the campus. The emergence of the new center may have you asking, "Just what is biotechnology?" Biotechnology sounds complicated. After all, biotech can mean advances in everything from corn to pond water to pharmaceuticals. But Dr. Moira Gunn - a former NASA computer scientist and host of the NPR show Biotech Nation - says it's not that hard to put your finger on a definition. "It's really pretty simple. Anytime you take anything biological, that's got genes and DNA, you go in there and tinker with the genes," Gunn says. "Maybe you add some, maybe you change gene fragments, maybe you snip some out. Anytime you do that - that's biotech." OK, so experts say that biotech is changing the structure of living things to make them work better, either in nature of for our own benefit. If this sounds controversial, or even a little too sci-fi, humans actually figured out how to use biotech centuries ago. "You could look all the way back to the Egyptians brewing beer, which is a yeast product, they had to create yeast which gives you the bubbles and ferments," Gunn says. The yeast is alive, so that's biotech. And if you look around your house, you'll see plenty of things that are made possible by biotech. Laundry detergent, for example, is chock full of enzymes. These are tiny proteins produced by living organisms, and these enzymes speed up chemical reactions. When hot water collides with your dirty laundry, specialized enzymes in laundry detergent break down dirt and release it from your socks. Enzymes are also used to create chemical reactions in everything from medicine to food. In fact, Novozymes - a Danish biotech company with a major enzyme manufacturing plan in Franklinton, North Carolina - is using enzymes to help bread stay fresher. Like all biotech, it starts with a problem. When bread goes stale, bakeries waste money and flour - all because the bread's starch molecules start to crystallize. "By adding an enzyme you can avoid that some of the cystal structures in bread take place and make sure that the bread stays fresher," says Lars Hansen, president of Novozymes North America. Novozymes' North American headquarters, about 30 miles north of Raleigh, is also working on a new way to turn courn into ethanol. Most ethanol is produced from corn kernels, the same things we slather with butter of feed to livestock. But Novozymes is finding new ways to transform not only the kernels but the left over corn husks into fuel. "We make good use of the waste material that is left on the fields and take that biomass and break it down inot fermentable sugars," Hansen says. Fermentable sugars can then be turned into ethanol. Novozymes has been getting a lot of attention for these advancements in biotech. So has SoyMeds - a company that got its start in the biology department at UNC Charlotte. JN - For the past six years, Dr. Kenneth Piller and Dr. Ken Bost have been researching something called edible vaccines - or vaccines that you eat or drink instead of injecting into your body. This research ahs the potential to deliver substantially cheaper and more stable vaccines to people in developing nations. And it all starts with soy beans. But not any old soybeans. Piller soaks soybean seed in bacteria that contains synthetic genes. These specialized genes cause plants to produce soybeans that contain antigens. "An antigen is a protein that causes an immune response," Piller says. In other words, it's the protein or bacteria that the doctor injected into your arm with that big long needle to vaccinate you against diseases like the measles and Hepatitis B. But what if those antigens could be delivered in something as painless as soymilk - a product that happens to be pretty inexpensive, especially compared to traditional vaccines. "A single soybean seed would contain enough antigen to vaccinate 1-2 people," Piller says. "And you can get anywhere from 200 - 300 soybean seeds per plant." This could revolutionize disease control in developing nations, but it also has applications here at home. These soy-based vaccines are still in the research stage, but someday they could be used to pretoct farm animals from disease and U.S. troops from biological warfare. According to biotech experts like Dr. Moira Gunn, biotechnology is about solving the world's problems by tinkering with nature. It can take place in the lab, in your medicine cabinet, or in your washing machine. One thing is for sure - biotech is everywhere.