The Role of Environmental Biotechnology
While pharmaceutical biotechnology represents the glamorous end of the market, environmental applications are decidedly more in the Cinderella mould. The reasons for this are fairly obvious. The prospect of a cure for the many diseases and conditions currently promised by gene therapy and other biotech-oriented medical miracles can potentially touch us all. Our lives may, quite literally, be changed. Environmental biotechnology, by contrast, deals with far less apparently dramatic topics and, though their importance, albeit different, may be every bit as great, their direct relevance is far less readily appreciated by the bulk of the population. Cleaning up contamination and dealing rationally with wastes is, of course, in everybody’s best interests, but for most people, this is simply addressing a problem which they would rather had not existed in the first place. Even for industry, though the benefits may be noticeable on the balance sheet, the likes of effluent treatment or pollution control are more of an inevitable obligation than a primary goal in themselves. In general, such activities are typically funded on a distinctly limited budget and have traditionally been viewed as a necessary inconvenience. This is in no way intended to be disparaging to industry; it simply represents commercial reality.
In many respects, there is a logical fit between this thinking and the aims of environmental biotechnology. For all the media circus surrounding the grand questions of our age, it is easy to forget that not all forms of biotechnology involve xenotransplantation, genetic modification, the use of stem cells or cloning.Some of the potentially most beneficial uses of biological engineering, and which may touch the lives of the majority of people, however indirectly, involve much simpler approaches. Less radical and showy, certainly, but powerful tools, just the same. Environmental biotechnology is fundamentally rooted in waste, in its various guises, typically being concerned with the remediation of contamination caused by previous use, the impact reduction of current activity or the control of pollution. Thus, the principal aims of this field are the manufacture of products in environmentally harmonious ways, which allow for the minimisation of harmful solids, liquids or gaseous outputs or the clean-up of the residual effects of earlier human occupation.
The means by which this may be achieved are essentially two-fold. Environ-mental biotechnologists may enhance or optimise conditions for existing biolog-ical systems to make their activities happen faster or more efficiently, or they resort to some form of alteration to bring about the desired outcome. The variety of organisms which may play a part in environmental applications of biotech-nology is huge, ranging from microbes through to trees and all are utilised on one of the same three fundamental bases – accept, acclimatise or alter. For the vast majority of cases, it is the former approach, accepting and making use of existing species in their natural, unmodified form, which predominates.