Biotechnology can be defined as making use of the natural processes or products of living things. This covers most of what we think of as biotechnology:
medical biotechnology, which uses microorganisms (such as bacteria or fungi) to make antibiotics or vaccines
industrial biotechnology, which uses microorganisms to make enzymes (e.g. to add to biological washing powders), or to produce beer, cheese or bread
environmental biotechnology, which uses microorganisms or plants to clean up land or water that is polluted with sewage or industrial waste and
agricultural biotechnology which aims to produce better crops, ‘natural’ fertilizers, or feed additive
New technologies, discoveries and a better understanding of the natural processes of living organisms are extending this list almost daily to give opportunities for developing new medicines and improved products for agriculture and industry.
Defining biotechnology in agriculture and food production When we consider agriculture and food production, ‘biotechnology’ is more difficult to define. How is making milk from cows, or flour from wheat different from making antibiotics from bacteria? All these products are normally produced in Nature, but we have harnessed the natural ability of organisms that produce them for our own use. By breeding plants and animals, or choosing the best antibiotic-producing strains of bacteria or fungi, we have selected organisms with the genetic make-up that gives them the ‘improved’ characteristics we desire.
‘Traditional’ biotechnology is nearly as old as humankind: brewing, breadmaking and cheesemaking are all ancient ways of using natural fermentation processes of microorganisms to either preserve food produced through agriculture, or create new tastes and textures – indeed, entirely new foods. These same processes of microorganisms are used today for a wider range of applications, to produce valuable products such as antibiotics or enzymes for medicine or industry, too.
‘Modern’ biotechnology attempts to achieve the same goals – new or better products – but more efficiently. Because we can now identify which genes code for particular characteristics, and can move the genes from one organism to another, we can achieve the most useful combination of genes in plants more quickly by genetic modification than by breeding or selection. Sometimes, genes are moved between closely related organisms – for example, from a plant that makes a particularly valuable product but only in small amounts, to a plant that has the machinery to make vast amounts of product. Alternatively, genes can be moved between very different organisms: genes for human insulin moved into bacteria provide a cheap, safe and plentiful supply of insulin to treat diabetics.