What is biotechnology?

Broadly speaking, biotechnology is the use of living systems to engineer or manufacture a product.  It is an ancient craft – Mankind has practiced biotechnology for more than 10,000 years.  One of the prominent forms of biotechnology practiced in prehistoric times was selective breeding.  For instance, indigenous people living in Mexico domesticated maize (corn) from teosinte approximately 9,000 years ago using selective breeding.  The grain from teosinte is almost unrecognizable when compared to a modern corn kernel.  Breeding technology is still widely used to make better tasting, lower cost, and healthier food.  Today, billions of dollars are spent every year on breeding programs to improve livestock and agricultural crops.   

As our understanding of biology has improved so has our ability to utilize biological systems to provide useful goods and services.  In the early 1970’s the field of genetic engineering was born when American scientists created the first transgenic organisms.  Transgenic organisms are organisms that have had their DNA deliberately modified by humans for a specific purpose.  The first transgenic organism was the model bacterium E. coli, which was made resistant to the antibiotic kanamycin by addition of carefully designed DNA.  Recognizing the tremendous potential of this new technology, Herbert Boyer, one of the inventors of the technology, co-founded the first genetic engineering company, Genentech.  Genentech quickly used genetic engineering technology to produce the hormone insulin in bacteria.  Before the invention of genetic engineering, insulin was harvested from pig pancreases.  A tremendous amount of pig pancreas was needed and literally had to be transported to Eli Lilly & Co. by the trainload.  Today, practically all insulin is made in microbes using modern biotechnology and genetic engineering.  In addition to insulin, many other life-saving drugs are made using biotechnology and genetic engineering.

The biotechnology field is split into three major categories:

1.      Medical or Red Biotechnology is the field of biotech that is used to improve human health. This is the largest biotech industry and one of the areas poised to revolutionize medicine in the 21st century.  It includes the production of drugs via fermenation, the use of genetic engineering to cure genetic diseases, and the field of personal medicine enabled by genome sequencing technology.

2.      Agricultural or Green Biotechnology is the field of biotech that is used to improve agricultural crops.  This technology is used to help farmers manage weeds and insect pests, improve plant disease resistance, increase resilience to abiotic stresses like drought, and improve the nutritional profile of food. 

3.      Industrial or White Biotechnology is the field of biotech that is used to produce industrial products that are more environmentally friendly relative to conventional production methods.  This technology is used in everyday products like: laundry detergent, breads and other bakery foods, “stonewashed” jeans, and renewable plastic containers.

Graph showing the cost to sequence a human genome versus time.  Note that the Y-axis is on a logarithmic scale!  Image from  www.genome.gov/sequencingcosts.

Graph showing the cost to sequence a human genome versus time.  Note that the Y-axis is on a logarithmic scale!  Image from  www.genome.gov/sequencingcosts.

Our understanding of biology continues to improve at an accelerated pace and it is widely expected that biotechnology will play a much bigger role in the global economy in the future.  In the last fifteen years, the cost of a fundamental tool in biotechnology, DNA sequencing, has decreased by >100,000 fold.  This tremendous cost reduction, as well as improvements in computer technology and DNA synthesis techniques is enabling exciting new fields like synthetic biology and personalized medicine.  In our lifetimes, advances in biotechnology will: dramatically improve human health, reduce or eliminate the detrimental environmental impacts of modern society, and be used to undo the severe environmental damage caused by humans. 

Now is a great time to get involved in this exciting industry.  The costs of developing biotechnology products for some markets is dramatically decreasing as core patents expire for technologies like the polymerase chain reaction and affordable services for the synthesis and sequencing of DNA are becoming ubiquitous.  At the Great Lakes Biotech Academy, we are committed to providing core biotech skills training to motivated young people.  Our goal is to lower the costs of acquiring biotech skills so that many more people can participate and contribute to this growing industry.