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Defining Biotechnology

written by: Emma Lloyd•edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski•updated: 8/20/2008

Historically man has been using biotechnology applications for thousands of years, but the field has changed enormously in the last few centuries. What are modern biotechnologies, and how has the field evolved since ancient times?

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    What is biotechnology? Depending on whom you ask, the answer might vary considerably. A geneticist might say that biotechnology is the manipulation of genetic material, while an agriculturalist might say that biotechnology is the use of organisms that improve crop yields or pest resistance. Ask a food scientist and they might say that biotechnology involves using microscopic organisms to make bread, wine, beer, cheese, and yogurt.

    Who is right? They all are—biotechnology is all of these things, and many others as well.

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    What is Biotechnology?

    Simply put, the most inclusive definition of biotechnology is the use of living organisms, or products obtained from living organisms, to modify the environment or modify human health.

    That’s an extremely broad definition, but biotechnology itself is a very broad field. It’s also a very ancient one. The first humans who began to plant crops and domesticate animals learned that they could ferment fruit juices into wine, make milk into cheese and yogurt, and make beer from solutions of fermented hops and malt. All of these discoveries at their essence are biotechnology applications involving the use of living organisms to modify foods. Even selective breeding of plants and animals for certain physical characteristics such as milk or crop yield is a type of biotechnology.

    In fact, biotechnology has been in existence and practiced by many cultures for thousands of years, long before there was a word to describe their discoveries and technologies in agriculture and food production.

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    Ancient and Modern Biotechnology

    Ancient cultures discovered that the combination of certain types of foodstuffs could result in entirely new products, and that taking seeds from the best plants in one years’ crop and planting those next season would over several years result in an entire field of healthier, higher-yield plants. However, they had no understanding of the scientific principles by which these techniques worked. It is only in the last one or two centuries that science has unraveled the mysteries behind fermentation, crop selection, and other ancient biotechnology applications.

    Perhaps the most significant difference between then and now is that today, researchers can not only manipulate entire living organisms—they can also change and manipulate genetic material extracted from those organisms. A gene or cell can be removed from one species and inserted into another, to confer on it new properties such as pest resistance or the ability to produce a molecule it was previously unable to produce.

    Not all modern biotechnology involved the manipulation of genetic material, however. Biotechnology has led to the development of hundreds of pharmaceutical drugs and vaccines, diagnostic tests, and medical treatments which are used to prevent and treat human and animal diseases. Biotechnology applications in agriculture have led to the selective breeding of pest-resistance, high-yield crops, and in the field of bioremediation, are used to help clean up oil spills and modify or clean soils and water.

    In ancient times, people used biotechnology in fairly simple ways, to enhance their own lives. Today, the biotechnology industry in the United States alone comprises more than 1,400 biotechnology companies which collectively generate tens of billions of dollars a year in revenue.