Biotechnology – One of the Engines of Global Economic Growth

2024-06-21, Valid until

“Today, biotechnology is one of the engines of European and global economic growth: in 2023, the global biotechnology market reached a staggering USD 1.55 trillion. Its applications are extensive, ranging from new and healthy food products and disease treatments to genetic engineering and environmental protection. Green and agricultural biotechnology are among the EU’s top priorities, with various EU programmes focusing on food innovations, such as the use of alternative materials like corn protein or fishmeal,” says Prof. Saulius Mickevičius, Doctor of Physics and Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Vytautas Magnus University, discussing the potential of biotechnology.

Biotechnology refers to the application of living organisms or biological processes in various fields – industry, medicine, agriculture, and beyond – to solve various problems and create useful products or innovations.

According to Prof. Mickevičius, genetics plays a crucial role in biotechnology, helping to select or create microorganisms, plants, and even animals with desirable genetic traits. The revolutionary CRISPR method, known as genetic scissors, already allows for the editing of human genes to increase resistance to HIV and other diseases. It is thanks to genetics and biotechnology and the application of messenger RNA technology that vaccines were developed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

“By leveraging artificial intelligence, large gene sequences can be sorted to identify which microorganisms or derivatives possess the necessary genetic traits. Scientists from VMU Faculty of Natural Sciences are actively working in this field, along with Genomika, a start-up founded by university students, which has even encoded the Lithuanian national anthem into DNA molecules, showcasing another example of the application of genetics,” Prof. Mickevičius notes.

Dean of VMU Faculty of Natural Sciences, Prof. Dr. Saulius Mickevičius

Helps combat environmental pollution and climate change

Biotechnology is actively applied in the food industry. For example, alternative proteins and meat substitutes made from plants are being developed to counteract the negative impacts of meat production, such as climate change and environmental pollution. Another important area is functional food, which provides additional health benefits beyond basic nutrition, including probiotics and antioxidants.

“At the university, we have a printer capable of producing biological products, such as components for cultured meat – the so-called scaffolds. This is known as additive manufacturing, a process where new biological components are added to existing biological systems. In terms of their application in food, it is important to note that Vytautas Magnus University greatly benefits from the Botanical Garden, which has a large collection of medicinal plants. Useful substances and extracts can be derived from these plants and used in the development of new food products,” Prof. Mickevičius explains.

Genetically modified crops cover as much as 202 million hectares

Biotechnology is widely applied in agriculture. For instance, plants are genetically modified to make crops resistant to pests, diseases, and herbicides, and to enhance their nutrient content. In 2022, the global area of biotech crops reached an impressive 202 million hectares, with the largest areas in the US, Brazil, and Argentina.

“The global population is continuously growing, and the climate is changing, presenting new challenges: ensuring food security for everyone and genetically adapting plants to withstand changing conditions. Additionally, plant varieties are being tailored for vertical farming and indoor gardening to produce higher and healthier yields all year round – all of these are solutions provided by biotechnology,” says Assoc. Prof. Viktorija Vaštakaitė-Kairienė, Senior Researcher at Vytautas Magnus University Agriculture Academy.

According to her, work in biotechnology is promising, broad, and constantly evolving, requiring one to stay abreast of the latest scientific research. Therefore, those considering a career in this field need not only a solid foundation in various scientific disciplines but also a high-quality university education that includes practical experience, allowing students to work with scientists and gain hands-on experience in biotechnology companies while still studying.

Assoc. Prof. Viktorija Vaštakaitė-Kairienė, Senior Researcher at Vytautas Magnus University Agriculture Academy

Studies offer state-of-the-art equipment and hands-on practice

The first-cycle Biotechnology study programme offered at Vytautas Magnus University provides these opportunities to students. The programme covers not only the fundamentals of biology, chemistry, and physics but also genetics, immunology, molecular modelling, and the futuristic world of genetic engineering. Students have access to modern laboratory equipment, allowing them to conduct contemporary research, analyse and evaluate various data, and create new, innovative products.

“Students who choose this programme have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the rhythm of biotechnology, see the challenges that need to be addressed now and those that will be relevant in the future. They will gain the latest scientific knowledge through lectures, participate in research, use state-of-the-art laboratory equipment, and complete three internships, including one in a chosen company,” notes Assoc. Prof. Vaštakaitė-Kairienė, emphasising that the VMU Biotechnology study programme also stands out for its focus on agricultural sciences, thanks to the contributions of the Agriculture Academy’s scientists.

“The Agriculture Academy has strong scientists, particularly in the fields of agrobiotechnology and biotechnology applications in forestry, including forest genetics, plant genetics and breeding, and other areas. Scientists from the Agriculture Academy and the Faculty of Natural Sciences are actively involved in the study process, working together with students in the laboratories. Practically all courses in the Biotechnology programme include practical, laboratory work; it’s not limited to just theory,” adds Prof. Mickevičius, Dean of the VMU Faculty of Natural Sciences.

According to the scientists, graduates of the VMU first-cycle Biotechnology study programme gain a comprehensive education in the field, enabling them to find employment in biotechnology companies such as Thermo Fisher Scientific, Nando, and others, or to continue their studies in a Master’s programme, specialising in a specific area of biotechnology, whether working with plants or animals.

About VMU BA study program Biotechnology