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Chapter: Environmental Biotechnology: Theory and Application: Introduction to Biotechnology

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Modalities and local influences - Environmental Biotechnology

Another of the key factors affecting the practical uptake of environmental biotechnology is the effect of local circumstances.

Modalities and local influences

Another of the key factors affecting the practical uptake of environmental biotechnology is the effect of local circumstances. Contextual sensitivity is almost certainly the single most important factor in technology selection and repre-sents a major influence on the likely penetration of biotech processes into the marketplace. Neither the nature of the biological system, nor of the application method itself, play anything like so relevant a role. This may seem somewhat unexpected at first sight, but the reasons for it are obvious on further inspection. While the character of both the specific organisms and the engineering remain essentially the same irrespective of location, external modalities of economics, legislation and custom vary on exactly this basis. Accordingly, what may make abundant sense as a biotech intervention in one region or country, may be totally unsuited to use in another. In as much as it is impossible to discount the wider global economic aspects in the discussion, disassociating political, fiscal and social conditions equally cannot be done, as the following example illustrates. In 1994, the expense of bioremediating contaminated soil in the United Kingdom greatly exceeded the cost of removing it to landfill. Six years later, with succes-sive changes of legislation and the imposition of a landfill tax, the situation has almost completely reversed. In those other countries where landfill has always been an expensive option, remediation has been embraced far more readily.

 While environmental biotechnology must, inevitably, be viewed as contextually dependent, as the previous example shows, contexts can change. In the final anal-ysis, it is often fiscal instruments, rather than the technologies, which provide the driving force and sometimes seemingly minor modifications in apparently unre-lated sectors can have major ramifications for the application of biotechnology. Again as has been discussed, the legal framework is another aspect of undeni-able importance in this respect. Increasingly tough environmental law makes a significant contribution to the sector and changes in regulatory legislation are often enormously influential in boosting existing markets or creating new ones. When legislation and economic pressure combine, as, for example, they have begun to do in the European Landfill Directive, the impetus towards a funda-mental paradigm shift becomes overwhelming and the implications for relevant biological applications can be immense.

 There is a natural tendency to delineate, seeking to characterise technologies into particular categories or divisions. However, the essence of environmental biotechnology is such that there are many more similarities than differences. Though it is, of course, often helpful to view individual technology uses as distinct, particularly when considering treatment options for a given environ-mental problem, there are inevitably recurrent themes which feature throughout the whole topic. Moreover, this is a truly applied science. While the importance of the laboratory bench cannot be denied, the controlled world of research trans-lates imperfectly into the harsh realities of commercial implementation. Thus, there can often be a dichotomy between theory and application and it is precisely this fertile ground which is explored in the present work. In addition, the princi-pal underlying approach of specifically environmental biotechnology, as distinct from other kinds, is the reliance on existing natural cycles, often directly and in an entirely unmodified form. Thus, this science stands on a foundation of fundamen-tal biology and biochemistry. To understand the application, the biotechnologist must simply examine the essential elements of life, living systems and ecological circulation sequences. However engineered the approach, this fact remains true. In many respects, environmental biotechnology stands as the purest example of the newly emergent bioindustry, since it is the least refined, at least in terms of the basis of its action. In essence, all of its applications simply encourage the natural propensity of the organisms involved, while seeking to enhance or accel-erate their action. Hence, optimisation, rather than modification, is the typical route by which the particular desired end result, whatever it may be, is achieved and, consequently, a number of issues feature as common threads within the discussions of individual technologies.

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