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Biotechnology is technology based on biology, especially when used in agriculture, food science, and medicine. It may also be included under the very broad term bioengineering.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity has come up with one of many definitions of biotechnology:[1]

"Biotechnology means any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use."

Biotechnology can also be defined as the manipulation of organisms to do practical things and to provide useful products.

One aspect of biotechnology is the directed use of organisms for the manufacture of organic products: examples include beer and milk products. For another example, naturally present bacteria are utilized by the mining industry in bioleaching. Biotechnology is also used to recycle, treat waste, clean up sites contaminated by industrial activities (bioremediation), and produce biological weapons.

There are also applications of biotechnology that do not use living organisms. Examples are DNA microarrays used in genetics, enzyme catalysts such as glucose isomerase (used to make high fructose syrups) and radioactive tracers used in medicine.



Main article: History of Biotechnology

Early cultures understood the importance of using natural processes to breakdown waste products into inert forms. From very early nomadic tribes to pre-urban civilizations it was common knowledge that given enough time organic waste products would be absorbed and eventually integrated into the soil. It was not until the advent of modern microbiology and chemistry that this process was fully understood and attributed to bacteria.

The most practical use of biotechnology, which is still present today, is the cultivations of plants to produce food suitable to humans. Agriculture has been theorized to have become the dominant way of producing food since the Neolithic Revolution. The processes and methods of agriculture have been refined by other mechanical and biological sciences since its inception. Through early biotechnology farmers were able to select the best suited and high-yield crops to produce enough food to support a growing population. Other uses of biotechnology were required as crops and fields became increasingly large and difficult to maintain. Specific organisms and organism byproducts were used to fertilize, restore nitrogen, and control pests. Throughout the use of agriculture farmers have inadvertently altered the genetics of their crops through introducing them to new environments, breeding them with other plants, and by using artificial selection. In modern times some plants are genetically modified to produce specific nutritional values or to be economical.

The process of Ethanol fermentation was also one of the first forms of biotechnology. Cultures such as those in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Iran developed the process of brewing which consisted of combining malted grains with specifics yeasts to produce alcoholic beverages. In this process the carbohydrates in the grains were broken down into alcohols such as ethanol. Later other cultures produced the process of Lactic acid fermentation which allowed the fermentation and preservation of other forms of food. Fermentation was also used in this time period to produce leavened bread. Although the process of fermentation was not fully understood until Louis Pasteur’s work in 1857, it is still the first use of biotechnology to convert a food source into another form.

Combinations of plants and other organisms were used as medications in many early civilizations. Since as early as 200 BC people began to use disabled or minute amounts of infectious agents to immunize themselves against infections. These and similar processes have been refined in modern medicine and have lead to many developments such as antibiotics, vaccines, and other methods of fighting sickness.

A more recent field in biotechnology is that of genetic engineering. Genetic modification has opened up many new fields of biotechnology and allowed the modification of plants, animals, and even humans on a molecular level.

Subgroups of biotechnology

A fundamental tool for all biotechnology is the use of bioinformatics, an interdisciplinary field which addresses biological problems using computational techniques, often referred to as computational biology. It plays a key role in various areas, such as functional genomics, structural genomics, and proteomics, and is an important resource for the discovery and understanding the function of genes leading to new applications.

Red biotechnology is applied to medical processes. Some examples are the designing of organisms to produce antibiotics, and the engineering of genetic cures through genomic manipulation.

White biotechnology, also known as grey biotechnology, is biotechnology applied to industrial processes. An example is the designing of an organism to produce a useful chemical. White biotechnology tends to consume less in resources than traditional processes used to produce industrial goods.

Green biotechnology is biotechnology applied to agricultural processes. An example is the designing of transgenic plants to grow under specific environmental conditions or in the presence (or absence) of certain agricultural chemicals. One hope is that green biotechnology might produce more environmentally friendly solutions than traditional industrial agriculture. An example of this is the engineering of a plant to express a pesticide, thereby eliminating the need for external application of pesticides. An example of this would be Bt corn. Whether or not green biotechnology products such as this are ultimately more environmentally friendly is a topic of considerable debate.

Blue biotechnology has also been used to describe the marine and aquatic applications of biotechnology, but its use is relatively rare.

Biotechnology medical products

Traditional pharmaceutical drugs are small chemicals molecules that treat the symptoms of a disease or illness - one molecule directed at a single target. Biopharmaceuticals are large biological molecules known as proteins and these target the underlying mechanisms and pathways of a malady; it is a relatively young industry. They can deal with targets in humans that are not accessible with traditional medicines. A patient typically is dosed with a small molecule via a tablet while a large molecule is typically injected.

Small molecules are manufactured by chemistry but large molecules are created by living cells: for example, - bacteria cells, yeast cell,animal cells.

Modern biotechnology is often associated with the use of genetically altered microorganisms such as E. coli or yeast for the production of substances like insulin or antibiotics. It can also refer to transgenic animals or transgenic plants, such as Bt corn. Genetically altered mammalian cells, such as Chinese Hamster Ovary (CHO) cells, are also widely used to manufacture pharmaceuticals. Another promising new biotechnology application is the development of plant-made pharmaceuticals.

Biotechnology is also commonly associated with landmark breakthroughs in new medical therapies to treat diabetes, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, cancers, arthritis, haemophilia bone fractures, multiple sclerosis, cardiovascular as well as molecular diagnostic devices than can be used to define the patient population. Herceptin, is the first drug approved for use with a matching diagnostic test and is used to treat breast cancer in women whose cancer cells express the protein HER2.

Global biotechnology trends

There has been little innovation in the traditional pharmaceutical industry over the past decade and biopharmaceuticals are now achieving the fastest rates of growth against this background, particularly in breast cancer treatment. Biopharmaceuticals typically treat sub-sets of the total population with a disease whereas traditional drugs are developed to treat the population as a whole. However, one of the great difficulties with traditional drugs are the toxic side effects the incidence of which can be unpredictable in individual patients.


  1. "The Convention on Biological Diversity (Article 2. Use of Terms)." United Nations. 1992. Retrieved on September 20, 2006.
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