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Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

What is Biotechnology?

Biotechnology refers to the use of living things to make useful products.

Traditional biotechnology dates back to centuries ago when man starting making cheese, baking bread and brewing beer with yeast. Today, technology has advanced and genes can be identified and transferred to incorporate desired characteristics into new organisms. Using techniques such as genetic engineering and cloning, biotechnology plays an important role in various fields, including medicine and health, agriculture, and other industry.

In medicine, biotechnology is used in developing vaccines, producing drugs and antibiotics and diagnosing disease.

In agriculture, biotechnology crops are improving harvests while conserving water, soil, and the quality of the environment. In the near future, biotechnology will also provide crops with improved nutritional value.

In other industries, for example, biotechnology is being used to produce biofuels, that is, using crops to produce fuel. Renewable resources such as corn can also be found in plastics and fibers.

How is Biotechnology being used in agriculture and food production?

Biotechnology tools reduce the amount of time required to deliver the same desired traits that traditional methods of selective breeding might, which take years of field testing and selection of traits. Biotechnology can reduce the process to months of lab testing and trait selection.

Characteristic which can be transferred to plants include insect resistance, herbicide resistance, drought tolerance. This has various benefits and can improve the yield of crops, reduce the use of insecticides and improve the environmental impact of farming. Please refer the GMO fact sheets for a comprehensive discussion of risks and benefits of GM crops.

Are GM crops safe?

GM crops are subject to extensive testing and regulations and have been evaluated to be safe. Any applications to test, grow or produce GM crops in South Africa have evaluated and approved by the government. See our fact sheet on GMO's and the cartoon on GMO regulatory process.

There are groups who believe the effects of GMO's will only be determined after many, many years of consumption, and until this time, we should proceed with caution.

How do I know if I am eating genetically modified food?

There are no labeling requirements to indicate the presence of genetically modified plants in the food we buy in the shops. Even if a product label indicates it is GM-free, it may contain GM crops within a pre-determined threshold. In South Africa, 4 GM crops are grown, including maize, cotton and soybeans. These GM crops are grown on large-scale in South Africa, accounting for most of the crop production. Any product with maize or soybean as an ingredient is likely to contain GM maize or soybean. GM potatoes may soon also be approved for commercial release in South Africa. Visit the Department of Health website for more information on the labeling regulations for GM food.

How is biotechnology used in Health and Medicine?

Biotechnology is used across various aspects of medicine from diagnosing disease or risk of developing disease, to prevention of disease by vaccination, to treating disease by development and production of drugs.

Some examples of existing biotechnology include the production of human insulin in bacteria, the large-scale production of antibiotics to treat numerous infections, the diagnosis of diseases such as HIV.

Many world-class research laboratories in South Africa are using biotechnology to solve some of the major health problems that affect us today, including HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and other chronic diseases such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

See our fact sheet on Biotechnology in Medical research for more information.

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are essentially "unspecialized" cells. They do not yet have a specialized function and have the ability to turn onto other types of cells. For instance a stem cell can turn in to liver cells, skin cells, nerve cells, etc. In order for stem cells to give rise to cells which can differentiate and become specialized, they need to be given the correct signals. A wide range of chemicals from nearby cells provide instructions to the stem cells. Stem cells can be classified as embryonic stem cells, which can be taken from a human embryo, or adult stem cells, taken from within specialized adult tissue.

There is much excitement in stem cell research due to the potential to treat diseases and to replace organs and tissues that have been damaged.

See our fact sheet on stem cells and cloning for more information.

Stem cell treatments are being used to treat leukemia, but the practicalities in curing or treating other disease are still currently limited and need further research, despite the promise of the potential of stem cell research. Unfortunately, there are some clinics that are exploiting patient's hopes by purporting to offer stem cell therapy for seriously ill patients without the scientific and clinical backup. The International Society of Stem Cell Research has recently (December 2008) issued guidelines for the responsible translation of stem cell research into clinical practice.

Visit Cell Stem Cell for the full article, which gives an indication to the types of questions a patient should ask if they are offered stem cell treatment.

What is cloning?

Cloning is a term used to broadly describe any process that produces an identical copy of biological material, from individual genes or cells to even whole organisms. A "clone" is a genetically identical copy of the original. The word cloning is an umbrella term, and covers various types of cloning: recombinant DNA technology or DNA cloning, reproductive cloning, and therapeutic cloning.

As animals become more frequently successfully cloned, the fears of cloning humans grow, and the ethical issues associated with it become more relevant. In South Africa, the National Health Bill passed in 2003 makes allowance for humans embryo stem cell research on excess embryo's from in vitro fertilization and also allows human embryo's to be specifically created for stem cell research by a process called SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer), which is a method used to clone animals. See the fact sheet on cloning for more information. Reproductive cloning of humans is not permitted.

What are biofuels?

Biofuels are energy sources that are produced from biomass- the living matter of plants or organic waste. Much hope has been placed on biofuels that they will, in the future, contribute significantly to replacing fossil fuels. Biofuel crops recycle carbon dioxide, one the main greenhouse gases, by absorbing it when they grow and the releasing it back into the atmosphere when they are burned. Theoretically biofuels should not add to greenhouse gas emissions, but in reality often the fossil fuel input required to grow the crop and convert it into biofuel can outweigh this benefit of the biofuel.

There are different types of biofuels. First generation biofuels include bioethanol, produced from plant sugars and starches, or biodiesel, from oily seeds such as soybean. Second generation biofuels involve the use of cellulose found in the woody parts of plants, so that non-edible plants or plant parts can be used as sources for biofuels, relieving the competition with food.

Biofuels are unlikely to replace fossil fuels entirely, and much research of time and money is necessary to improve the standards to biofuel technology. The production of biofuels is one of a number of energy options that will contribute to reducing the consumption of fossil fuels. Other options may include wind power and solar energy, as well as nuclear energy.

See our series of facts sheets on biofuels for more information.

What careers can I follow in Biotechnology?

Biotechnology taps into so many fields, including food and agriculture, animal health, human health and medicine, understanding genetics and how humans evolved, bioremediation, fuel production. Careers can be followed from technical levels working in laboratories to academic to policy makers to business opportunities.

Visit our career's section for more information.

Where can I study Biotechnology?

Most Universities in South Africa offer BSc (science degrees) inclusive of biotechnology, whether it be molecular biology, genetics, microbiology or biochemistry. Some Universities offer 3 year BSc degrees specific to biotechnology, such as University of Cape Town and University of Pretoria. It is recommended you contact the Science Faculties of the Universities for more information about degrees in Biotechnology, relevant to your specific area of interest in biotechnology. Universities also offer more specialized post-graduate programmes in specific areas of biotechnology.

Technikons across South Africa also offer 1 year courses or 3 year diplomas in Biotechnology. Contact your local Technikon for more information about the courses offered and entrance requirements.

What bursaries are available in this area of study?

Various bursaries are listed on the Biocareers website.

Also contact your University to find out if there are individual bursaries you can apply for. For postgraduate students, the National Research Foundation (NRF) also offers scholarships and bursaries.

Where can I find information on the latest developments in Biotechnology?

Websites such as Nature.com/news and Newscientist.com provide the latest highlights in research for a wide-range of science subjects. Doing a keyword search for "biotechnology" will generate the latest news in biotechnology.

Young Science Communicators Writing Initiative:

In an initiative to offer a platform to exercise skills in science communication, PUB commissioned a group of young scientists to write popular articles on various topics relating to biotechnology applications. Read their on articles on topics including sustainable energy, aquaculture, palaeogenomics, and more... Click here to view.

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Press release

Shedding Light on Human Genetic Diversity

A paper detailing the the Southern African Genome Sequencing Project and its results was published in the journal Nature.

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