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biotechnology (biotech)

Contributor(s): Sarah Lewis

Biotechnology, often abbreviated to biotech, is the area of biology that uses living processes, organisms or systems to manufacture products or technology intended to improve the quality of human life. Depending on the technology, tools and applications involved, biotechnology can overlap with molecular biology, bionics, bioengineering, genetic engineering and nanotechnology.

By harnessing cellular and biomolecular processes, scientists can make advances and adaptations to technology in various fields. Traditional processes include using living organisms in their natural form, breeding new living organisms or modifying their genetic makeup. Successful applications of such processes have resulted in treatment of disease, environmental impact reduction and more efficient use of natural resources. Major biotech companies implement biotechnology as a practice to bring medical devices and products to the mainstream market.

Biotechnology, like other advanced technologies, has the potential for misuse. Concern about this has led to efforts by some groups to enact legislation restricting or banning certain processes or programs, such as human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research. There is also concern that if biotechnological processes are used by groups with nefarious intent, the end result could be biological warfare.

Types of biotechnology

The science of biotechnology can be broken down into sub-disciplines based on common uses and applications.

  • Red biotechnology involves medical processes such as getting organisms to produce new drugs and using stem cells to regenerate damaged human tissues or perhaps re-grow entire organs.
  • White (or sometimes seen as gray) biotechnology involves industrial processes such as the production of new chemicals or the development of new fuels for vehicles.
  • Green biotechnology applies to agricultural processes such as producing pest-resistant crops, disease-resistant animals and environmentally-friendly development.
  • Gold biotechnology, also known as bioinformatics, is a cross between biological processes and computing that plays a key role in biological data.
  • Blue biotechnology encompasses processes in marine and aquatic environments, such as controlling the proliferation of noxious water-borne organisms.
  • Yellow biotechnology refers to processes that aid food production, the most popular application being the fermentation of alcohol or cheese.
  • Violet biotechnology handles the compliance, law and ethical issues that arise within the field.
  • Dark biotechnology references the ability to use biotechnology for weapons or warefare.

Examples of biotechnology

Modern biotechnology can be used for a variety of applications, including:

  • The pharmaceutical industry uses biotechnology to find cures for diseases, understand human cell biology and DNA, develop vaccines and manufacture antibiotics.
  • Chemical manufacturing engineers can use biological processes, such as fermentation and the use of enzymes or microbes, to streamline chemical manufacturing, reduce operational costs and reduce chemical emissions.
  • Biofuels can be created by altering natural resources, such as corn, to produce combustible fuel.
  • Nutrient supplementation can involve biotechnology as some foods are infused with necessary added nutrients to aid in diet planning or medical treatment.
  • Plants and crops can be bred to handle external stresses, such as minimal space or extreme weather conditions, through biotechnology.
This was last updated in March 2019

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