30 Apr 2020

How biotechnology is contributing to the fight against COVID-19

We are all living uncertain times in the last days. Our daily routines and our habitual lifestyle have suddenly been interrupted.

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While we can all contribute to stop this pandemic with very simple measures, such as staying at home, there is a significant sector of the world’s population that is actively fighting the virus. In addition to health staff, who are demonstrating a high level of courage and commitment, the scientific community is duplicating efforts and resources to expand knowledge about the coronavirus and develop strategies to defeat it, based on a deep understanding of its biology.

Biotechnology plays a key role in contributing to the current coronavirus situation. Great efforts are focused on developing therapeutic responses to the virus. By working with human cells and gene mechanisms, biotechnologists improve their understanding of viral mechanisms by studying their genetics and transcribing this information into knowledge and tools to search for a vaccine. These biotech vaccines may trigger an immediate immune response in symptomatic patients, rather than traditional vaccines, which are preventive in nature. These vaccines are being tested by clinical trials in China, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom.

Apart from the therapeutic research, biotechnology is involved in other ways in that fight. In fact, two of the most widely used expression in COVID-19 related news are “PCR” and “genome”. Both are biotechnological terms and are having a notable place in the coronavirus crisis. 

PCR, or polymerase chain reaction (https://www.genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Polymerase-Chain-Reaction) is a revolutionary method, based on DNA polymerase, an enzyme discovered by the Spanish scientist Margarita Salas. This enzyme has the ability to synthesize DNA in vitro using a short genetic fragment as a template, in this case from the virus genome. When a diagnostic test is performed using PCR, it is possible to detect this fragment of the genetic material of the pathogen. If a respiratory sample from an infected person is analysed, the short genetic fragment from the viruses in their body will match with the genetic fragment of the PCR. This allows DNA polymerase to start the reaction and produce large numbers of replicates of this DNA fragment, allowing it to be detected. In that case, the result will be positive and it would be known that this patient has COVID-19

On the other hand, studying the virus genome facilitates the understanding of its biological functions and infection capacities. The genome is the set of genes contained in an organism, in other words, the entire genetic material that a particular organism possesses. For that reason, scientist around the world are working round the clock to sequence the genome of the viruses present in their specific regions. For instance, the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona has launched a free public database (https://covid.crg.eu). Having this information and sharing it with other scientists allows us to understand how the coronavirus grows, mutates and replicates. This helps to find its weak spots and to beat it. 

Marta Muñoz (Materials Department)