The field of biotechnology is both new and complex. As a result many people have little, if any, idea what it involves. Some people equate biotechnology with genetically engineered foods such as "bionic" tomatoes that last longer before spoiling; others associate the term with medical breakthroughs such as test-tube babies and new techniques for diagnosing cancer and other diseases. Although these examples do indeed fall under the category of biotechnology, the field encompasses a much wider range of scientific and technological techniques and processes.
We can begin to understand the term biotechnology by examining its parts. Bio means living organisms or tissue. Technology is a scientific method of achieving a practical purpose. Thus, biotechnology, in simple terms, is scientists using living things to achieve practical purposes.
The U.S. government defines biotechnology as "any technique that uses living organisms or parts of living organisms to: (1) make or modify products, (2) improve plants or animals, or (3) develop microorganisms for specific uses."
Other countries define biotechnology slightly differently. For example, the Canadian government's definition is as follows: "Biotechnology is the utilization of a biological process, be it via microbial plant or animal cells, or their constituents, to provide goods and services." And the European Federation defines biotechnology as "the integrated use of biochemistry, microbiology, and engineering sciences in order to achieve industrial application of the capabilities of microorganisms, cultured tissue cells, and parts thereof."
Because of its complexity, the field of biotechnology is, in many ways, still being defined. Biotechnology, as you will learn, has tremendous potential for bettering our lives by providing opportunities to improve health care, agriculture, and our environment. Standing at the frontier of this exciting field, our biggest challenge is to use the power of biotechnology wisely: to carefully consider its implications before bringing about irreversible changes to our planet.
Modern biotechnology has roots stretching back to the dawn of humanity. Ten thousand years ago, enterprising ancient people learned that they could improve the quality and quantity of certain foods by controlling the conditions of fermentation. They used microorganisms (yeast) to make wine, beer, and bread. Early farmers discovered that they could boost the numbers and improve the taste of their crops by saving and planting the seeds of desirable plants. Crops that gave the highest yield, stayed healthiest during periods of drought or disease, and were the easiest to harvest tended to pass on their favorable characteristics to future generations. Farmers learned that they could perpetuate and even strengthen the desirable traits through several years of careful seed selection.
Centuries later in the mid1860s, Gregor Mendel discovered the scientific basis of these early farming techniques while studying the hereditary traits of peas. Mendel's work opened the doors to understanding genetic processes and crossbreeding (hybridization). However, only in the twentieth century, with the advantages of sophisticated laboratories and technological equipment, have scientists had a solid understanding of the scientific principles behind natural processes such as fermentation and heredity.
Biotechnology is not a single science, nor is it a single procedure, technique, or process. Rather, it is a field involving a multitude of biotechnological techniques that draw upon all the sciences, as well as engineering. Consequently, there is no single educational track that will prepare a student for a career in biotechnology.
Biotechnology can be grouped into three general categories:
- Human health care
- Agriculture and animal health care and
- Energy/Environmental management.
Applications in human health care:
- Monoclonal antibodies
- Detection and treatment of diseases such as cancer, AIDS, and cardiovascular conditions
- Human growth and other hormones
- Other proteins
- Improved and new antibiotics, drugs, and vitamins
- Gene Therapy
- Food additives, proteins, enzymes, and vitamins
- Bio pesticides and bio fertilizers
- Improved crop yield and quality
- Animal feed supplements
- Plant growth hormones
- Diagnostic reagents for plant and animal diseases
- Transgenic animals
- Microbial nitrogen fixation and manipulation of Symbionts
- Bio mass from chemicals, wastes, residues, and fuel crops
- Enhanced oil recovery
- Chemicals and solvents
- Decomposition and detoxification of chemicals
- Biosensors and biochips
- Improved microbial systems for environmental control of air, water, and soil
- Extraction of low-grade metals and recovery of valuable metals
- Hydrogen and carbon dioxide production