Biotechnology is the use of living systems and organisms to develop or make products, or "any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use" (UN Convention on Biological Diversity, Art. 2). Depending on the tools and applications, it often overlaps with the (related) fields of bioengineering, biomedical engineering, etc.
For thousands of years, humankind has used biotechnology in agriculture, food production, and medicine. The term is largely believed to have been coined in 1919 by Hungarian engineer Károly Ereky. In the late 20th and early 21st century, biotechnology has expanded to include new and diverse sciences such as genomics, recombinant gene techniques, applied immunology, and development of pharmaceutical therapies and diagnostic tests.
At its simplest, biotechnology is technology based on biology - biotechnology harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet. We have used the biological processes of microorganisms for more than 6,000 years to make useful food products, such as bread and cheese, and to preserve dairy products.
Modern biotechnology provides breakthrough products and technologies to combat debilitating and rare diseases, reduce our environmental footprint, feed the hungry, use less and cleaner energy, and have safer, cleaner and more efficient industrial manufacturing processes.
Currently, there are more than 250 biotechnology health care products and vaccines available to patients, many for previously untreatable diseases. More than 18 million farmers around the world use agricultural biotechnology to increase yields, prevent damage from insects and pests and reduce farming's impact on the environment. And more than 50 biorefineries are being built across North America to test and refine technologies to produce biofuels and chemicals from renewable biomass, which can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Recent advances in biotechnology are helping us prepare for and meet society’s most pressing challenges. Here's how:
Heal the World
Biotech is helping to heal the world by harnessing nature's own toolbox and using our own genetic makeup to heal and guide lines of research by:
- Reducing rates of infectious disease;
- Saving millions of children's lives;
- Changing the odds of serious, life-threatening conditions affecting millions around the world;
- Tailoring treatments to individuals to minimize health risks and side effects;
- Creating more precise tools for disease detection; and
- Combating serious illnesses and everyday threats confronting the developing world.
Fuel the World
Biotech uses biological processes such as fermentation and harnesses biocatalysts such as enzymes, yeast, and other microbes to become microscopic manufacturing plants. Biotech is helping to fuel the world by:
- Streamlining the steps in chemical manufacturing processes by 80% or more;
- Lowering the temperature for cleaning clothes and potentially saving $4.1 billion annually;
- Improving manufacturing process efficiency to save 50% or more on operating costs;
- Reducing use of and reliance on petrochemicals;
- Using biofuels to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 52% or more;
- Decreasing water usage and waste generation; and
- Tapping into the full potential of traditional biomass waste products.
Feed the World
Biotech improves crop insect resistance, enhances crop herbicide tolerance and facilitates the use of more environmentally sustainable farming practices. Biotech is helping to feed the world by:
- Generating higher crop yields with fewer inputs;
- Lowering volumes of agricultural chemicals required by crops-limiting the run-off of these products into the environment;
- Using biotech crops that need fewer applications of pesticides and that allow farmers to reduce tilling farmland;
- Developing crops with enhanced nutrition profiles that solve vitamin and nutrient deficiencies;
- Producing foods free of allergens and toxins such as mycotoxin; and
- Improving food and crop oil content to help improve cardiovascular health.
Biotechnology is the use of biological processes, organisms, or systems to manufacture products intended to improve the quality of human life. The earliest biotechnologists were farmers who developed improved species of plants and animals by cross pollination or cross breeding. In recent years, biotechnology has expanded in sophistication, scope, and applicability.
The science of biotechnology can be broken down into sub disciplines called red, white, green, and blue. Red biotechnology involves medical processes such as getting organisms to produce new drugs, or using stem cells to regenerate damaged human tissues and perhaps re-grow entire organs. White (also called gray) biotechnology involves industrial processes such as the production of new chemicals or the development of new fuels for vehicles. Green biotechnology applies to agriculture and involves such processes as the development of pest-resistant grains or the accelerated evolution of disease-resistant animals. Blue biotechnology, rarely mentioned, encompasses processes in marine and aquatic environments, such as controlling the proliferation of noxious water-borne organisms.
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.
This website provides a curated collection of resources about the people, places and technologies that have enabled biotechnology to transform our healthcare and the world we live in today
A third of all new medicines introduced into the world today are monoclonal antibodies, many of which go on to become blockbuster drugs. This exhibition is the story of how one one specific monoclonal antibody drug, alemtuzumab (marketed as Campath, MabCampath, Campath 1H and Lemtrada), moved from the laboratory bench through to the clinic and the impact it has had on patients' lives. Just one of many hundreds of monoclonal antibodies, alemtuzumab started life in 1979 not as a drug but as a laboratory tool for understanding the immune system. Within a short time, however, it was being used to improve the success of bone marrow transplants and as a treatment for leukaemia, lymphoma, vasculitis, organ transplants and multiple sclerosis. Highlighting the many twists and turns that alemtuzumab took over time, this exhibition explores the multitude of actors and events involved in the making of a biotechnology drug. Click here to view the exhibition.
Today monoclonal antibodies are indispensable to medicine. They are not only used as therapeutics, comprising six out of ten of the best selling drugs in the world, but are also critical to unravelling the pathways of disease and integral components of diagnostic tests. Yet, the story of how these unsung microscopic heroes came into the world and helped change healthcare remains largely untold. The journey of monoclonal antibodies all started when an Argentinian émigré called César Milstein arrived at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, the same laboratory where Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA. This exhibition tells the story of how Milstein came to develop monoclonal antibodies and demonstrated their clinical application for the first time. Click here to view the exhibition.
Exploring the lives and works of the leading people from across the world like Rosalind Franklin (pictured) whose efforts have helped build biotechnology into a world changing science.
Rosalind Franklin (Born:1920 - Died: 1958) The first to hypothesise and show, through x-ray diffraction, the double helix structure of DNA, Franklin's work laid the foundation for Crick and Watson's molecular model of DNA. Click here to learn more about Rosalind Franklin or click here to browse all the people.
Exploring the places and institutions, and people working in them, across the world like Basel Institute of Immunology(pictured) where the science of biotechnology has been developed.
A leading centre for immunological research from 1971 to 2000, the Basel Institute of Immunology helped lay the groundwork for the development of monoclonal antibodies.Click here to learn more about Basel Institute of Immunology orclick here to browse all the places.
An ever-growing list of events, currently 454 events, that have contributed to the growth of biotechnology. Click here to browse the timeline.
Exploring the key sciences that have been central to the growth of biotechnology like recombinant DNA. Click here to learn more about recombinant DNA or click here to browse all the sciences.
The untold story of monoclonal antibodies
Yale University Press has announced the publication of The Lock and Key of Medicine: Monoclonal Antibodies and the Transformation of Healthcare by Lara V. Marks (Yale University Press, Amazon).
Forty years ago, viable monoclonal antibodies, imperceptibly small “magic bullets,” became available for the first time. First produced in 1975 by César Milstein and Georges Köhler at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England (where Watson and Crick unraveled the structure of DNA), Mabs have had a phenomenally far-reaching effect on our society and daily life. The Lock and Key of Medicine is the first book to tell the extraordinary yet unheralded history of monoclonal antibodies, or Mabs. Though unfamiliar to most nonscientists, these microscopic protein molecules are everywhere, quietly shaping our lives and healthcare. They have radically changed understandings of the pathways of disease, enabling faster, cheaper, and more accurate clinical diagnostic testing. And they lie at the heart of the development of genetically engineered drugs such as interferon and blockbuster personalized therapies such as Herceptin.
Historian of medicine Lara V. Marks recounts the risks and opposition that a daring handful of individuals faced while discovering and developing Mabs, and she addresses the related scientific, medical, technological, business, and social challenges that arose. She offers a saga of entrepreneurs who ultimately changed the healthcare landscape and brought untold relief to millions of patients. Even so, controversies over Mabs remain, which the author explores through the current debates on their cost-effectiveness.
What is biotechnology?
The word biotechnology is a cross between the Greek words 'bios' (everything to do with life) and 'technikos' (involving human knowledge and skills). The OECD (the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development) defines biotechnology as "the application of scientific and engineering principles to the processing of materials by biological agents". More simply, it is using living organisms to make useful products.
Production may be carried out by using intact organisms, such as yeasts and bacteria, or by using natural substances (e.g. enzymes) from organisms. Biotechnology makes use of biological systems and processes to manufacture useful products and provide services.
Healthcare or red biotechnology refers to a medicinal or diagnostic product or a vaccine that consists of, or has been produced in, living organisms and may be manufactured via recombinant technology (recombinant DNA is a form of DNA that does not exist naturally. It is created by combining DNA sequences that would not normally occur together).
Agricultural or green biotechnology encompasses a range of modern plant breeding techniques. For centuries, farmers have tried to improve their crops by means of crossing, relying on the random rearrangement of existing genes between two closely related parent plants. Modern agricultural biotechnology improves crops in more targeted ways. The best known technique is genetic modification, but the term agricultural biotechnology (or green biotechnology) also covers such techniques as Marker Assisted Breeding, which increases the effectiveness of conventional breeding. Whatever the particular technology used, the crops may be destined for use for food, biomaterials or energy production.
Industrial or white biotechnology uses enzymes and micro-organisms to make biobased products in sectors such as chemicals, food and feed, detergents, paper and pulp, textiles and bioenergy (such as biofuels or biogas). In doing so, it uses renewable raw materials and is one of the most promising, innovative approaches towards lowering greenhouse gas emissions.