What is Biotechnology?

by Yang Wenting on May 25, 2011

Biotechnology is technology based on biology, especially when used in agriculture, food science, and medicine.

Biotechnology is any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives there of, to make or modify products or processes for specific use. One section of biotechnology is the directed use of organisms for the manufacture of organic products (examples include beer, milk-products, and skin). 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 and radioactive tracers used in medicine.

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 ovarian cells, are also widely used to manufacture pharmaceuticals. Another promising new biotechnology application is the development of plant-made pharmaceuticals.

There are number of jargon terms for sub-fields of biotechnology.

Red biotechnology is biotechnology applied to medical processes. An example would include an organism designed to produce an antibiotic, or engineering genetic cures to diseases through genomic manipulation.

White biotechnology, also known as grey biotechnology, is biotechnology applied to industrial processes. An example would include an organism designed to produce a useful chemical. White biotechnology tends to consume less resources that traditional processes when used to produce industrial goods.

Green biotechnology is biotechnology applied to agricultural processes. An example would include an organism designed to grow under specific environmental conditions or in the presence (or absence) of certain agricultural chemicals. Green biotechnology tends to produce more environmentally friendly solutions then traditional industrial agriculture. An example of this would include a plant engineered to express a pesticide, thereby eliminating the need for external application of pesticides.

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

In its purest form, the term “biotechnology” refers to the use of living organisms or their products to modify human health and the human environment. Prehistoric biotechnologists did this as they used yeast cells to raise bread dough and to ferment alcoholic beverages, and bacterial cells to make cheeses and yogurts and as they bred their strong, productive animals to make even stronger and more productive offspring. Throughout human history, we have learned a great deal about the different organisms that our ancestors used so effectively. The marked increase in our understanding of these organisms and their cell products gains us the ability to control the many functions of various cells and organisms.

Using the techniques of gene splicing and recombinant DNA technology, we can now actually combine the genetic elements of two or more living cells. Functioning lengths of DNA can be taken from one organism and placed into the cells of another organism. As a result, for example, we can cause bacterial cells to produce human molecules. Cows can produce more milk for the same amount of feed. And we can synthesize therapeutic molecules that have never before existed.

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