What is Biotechnology?

UW Online Collaboratives August 11, 2022
Image of DNA

Over the past two decades, terms like the Human Genome Project, DNA, and genetic engineering have become household names. New discoveries are regularly reported on by the media—the latest: Scientists have sequenced the avocado genome (and they say that’s good news for guacamole lovers). In February 1997, the big story hitting the press that month: A team of scientists led by Ian Wilmut at the Roslin Institute had successfully cloned the first adult mammal. Dolly, a Finn Dorset ewe, was born on July 5, 1996, an exact genetic copy of a living adult Finn Dorset ewe. All of this activity has taken place in the rapidly advancing field of science known as biotechnology.

Round vs. wrinkled: Biotechnology’s formative years

Remember Gregor Mendel? The Austrian monk is often regarded as the “father of modern genetics,” and the results of his pea experiments, conducted between 1854-1856, are widely taught to elementary school children to introduce the concept of heredity. His research paved the way for scientists to further explore genetic inheritance. Yet, when Mendel was conducting his experiments, the discipline of biotechnology, as we know it today, wasn’t to come together for another hundred years.

The actual term ‘biotechnology’ was introduced by Karl Ereky, a Hungarian agricultural engineer, in his book Biotechnologie (abbr.), published in 1919 (and it stuck). By his definition, biotechnology was simply the process of using technology to convert raw, biological material into a useful product. That’s not so far from how we understand biotechnology today, but the tools we use are more sophisticated and the breadth of knowledge gained in the field has expanded. Today’s biotechnologists manipulate cells, chromosomes, DNA, and other building blocks of life that were largely unknown to Mendel and Ereky in their day.

Modern definitions of biotechnology don’t stray too far from Ereky’s original intent—exploiting the properties of biological material with technology to provide a useful product. In the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Quarterly, Jobs in Biotechnology: Applying Old Sciences to New Discoveries, they describe biotechnology as “a field of science that fuses engineering and technology with the life sciences.” According to BIO (Biotechnology Innovation Organization), a leading biotechnology trade association, “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 might be tempted to think of biotechnology as part of our own age. But, even before Mendel started tracking yellow versus green peas, we humans have been manipulating our biological environment for thousands of years. We’ve taken advantage of fermentation that creates products like wine, cheese, and beer; we’ve selectively bred animals to produce livestock with desired characteristics; we’ve documented the healing properties of medicinal plants and published pharmacopeia as early as the 1st century AD.

Modern-day biotechnology: Getting from there to here

Growth in biotechnology owes a lot to the scientists who explored disease pathogens and genetic engineering in the centuries leading up to our own. Following a string of discoveries during the early 19th and 20th centuries, the pioneering work of startup companies in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Genentech, Amgen, Biogen, and others, led to novel products that promised to help improve our lives, such as the FDA approval of recombinant insulin in 1982. Further developments in DNA sequencing, over the last half-century, have led to a greater understanding of disease and beneficial treatments like gene therapy, which has been available to treat non-Hodgkin lymphoma since 2017.

However, for biotechnology, contributions to the health and well-being of humans go back decades earlier. There is no debate that the discovery of penicillin, by Alexander Fleming in 1928, revolutionized medicine. The use of antibiotics and vaccines to treat and prevent disease was a game changer, reducing the prevalence of certain diseases. It led to something amazing in 1980: the total eradication of smallpox. The story of penicillin is a great example of scientific success through collaboration. Alexander Fleming may have discovered penicillin, but it was a team of Oxford scientists and the US Department of Agriculture that found a way to scale up production for wide-spread use.

And here’s another household word: pasteurized. Today, food items like milk, orange juice, and honey are pasteurized to eliminate harmful microorganisms that cause disease, such as E.coli, Listeria, and Salmonella. We can thank French chemist Louis Pasteur for that. Pasteur is also credited with introducing the germ theory of disease and he created the first animal vaccines for anthrax and rabies.

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Advances in biotechnology are not limited to medicine. Environmental remediation, which was used in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the more recent Deepwater Horizon spill, takes advantage of naturally occurring microorganisms that “eat the oil”. Increasingly, the role of biotechnology in maintaining the world’s food supply has acquired urgency in the face of climate change and a rising world population.

Every development in biotechnology leads to another. In 1916, Chaim Weizmann converted Clostridium acetobutylicum to produce acetone, which was used by the Allies in World War I. Fast forward to present day—we’re still building on Weizmann’s process to find further uses for acetone that reduce harmful industrial by-products.

Biotechnology and ethics

Advances in biotechnology have also faced criticism. Opposition to GMOs resulted in alarmed letters to the editor in the New York Times, and a catchy, but misleading name: Frankenfood. The birth of Dolly set off an ethical debate over human and animal cloning that is still ongoing. In 2001, President George W. Bush banned funding for human stem cell research due to controversy over using embryonic stem cells, however, today’s scientists use alternative sources in their research. Genome editing, using methods such as CRISPR/Cas-9, have also raised ethical concerns.

Early on, scientists recognized a need for oversight. The seminal 1975 Asilomar conference established ethical standards to minimize risk and guidelines for scientists weighing the positive and negative outcomes of their research at the outset. It is this ethical rigor that allows scientists to pursue and discover promising solutions to the many critical challenges facing humanity today.

What can you do in biotechnology?

Biotechnology is an expansive field, founded on human curiosity and ingenuity, and offers the opportunity to solve the world’s most pressing problems in healthcare, agriculture, and industry. Scientists have continually introduced products to the world that help cure disease in humans and animals, improve crop resistance to pests, and offer alternate sources of energy so that we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and negate related environmental consequences.

Those working in biotechnology have a variety of exciting career choices across medical, environmental, and industrial science occupations, with job titles such as Microbiologist, Epidemiologist, Biomedical Engineer, Agricultural and Food Scientist, Business Development Manager, Marketing and Sales Manager, Regulatory Affairs Manager, Quality Assurance Specialist, or Bioinformatics Specialist. They may work for a biotechnology startup, an established company, or at a research facility for a university, government, or healthcare system.

RELATED: Biotechnology Careers and Salaries

What’s Next?

Do you want to learn more about UW Applied Biotechnology? The Master of Science in Applied Biotechnology offers a choice of three tracks—Quality Assurance and Compliance, Business Management, and Research and Development. The Graduate Certificate in Applied Bioinformatics teaches you the data science skills required to process and analyze large-scale biological data sets in a flexible, online format. Contact a knowledgeable enrollment adviser at 608-800-6762 or

Programs: Applied Biotechnology