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Biotechnology can refer to the application of science and technology to living organisms or the use of living organisms, their parts, products or models thereof to solve a problem, produce knowledge or produce goods and services. Biotechnology may involve the alteration of living or non-living materials.

Biotechnology is a term that can be used differently in different fields of research and industry. Researchers who work in biotechnology do not often define themselves as biotechnologists. Matt Pavlovich, the editor for Trends in Biotechnology describes his readers as synthetic biologists, bio(medical) engineers, medicinal chemists, agricultural scientists, bioinformaticians, applied geneticists, industrial microbiologists, protein engineers and materials scientists. He describes biotechnology as “useful science applied to, derived from, or inspired by living systems.”

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defined biotechnology in 2005 as “The application of science and technology to living organisms, as well as parts, products and models thereof, to alter living or non-living materials for the production of knowledge, goods and services.”

Some synthetic biologists see biotechnology as a discipline where biological parts are manipulated and includes the development of necessary tools and protocols.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency defines biotechnology and modern biotechnology differently when related to agricultural use of biotechnology:

"Biotechnology" means the application of science and engineering in the direct or indirect use of living organisms, or parts or products of living organisms, in their natural or modified forms. This term is very broad and includes the use of traditional or conventional breeding, as well as more modern techniques such as genetic engineering. "Modern biotechnology" is used to distinguish newer applications of biotechnology, such as genetic engineering and cell fusion from more conventional methods such as breeding, or fermentation.


Since ancient times humans have used biotechnology in agriculture to improve species of plants and animals using techniques such as cross-pollination, cross-breeding, selective breeding and domestication of animals. The utilization of micro-organisms to produce cheese, yogurt, bread, beer and wine is also biotechnology. Early medical treatments that fall under biotechnology include treatment of boils with soybean curds in 600 BC in China and moldy cheese used by Ukrainian farmers to treat infected wounds.

The term biotechnology was coined in 1919 by Hungarian engineer Karl Ereky to mean the use of living organisms to aid in the production of products from raw materials. Modern biotechnology is a term used for biotechnology techniques and approaches that came after the development of methods to modify DNA in the laboratory and move genetic material from one organism to another. Modern biotechnology grew out of advancements in understanding of genetics (1900-1953) and advancements in DNA research (1953-1976).

Biotechnology Sectors

Most biotechnology applications fall into medical, agricultural or industrial sectors, which are sometimes called red, green and white biotechnologies, respectively. The genetic modification of plants for use in vaccines would straddle both medical and agricultural biotechnology.

Agricultural biotechnology includes selective breeding and other forms of genetic modification of plants or animals such as genetic engineering for improved yields or characteristics. Agricultural biotechnology can be divided into plant and animal biotechnology.

Industrial biotechnology is the use of plants, marine organisms, microorganisms, algae and fungi for production of chemicals, materials and energy. Industrial biotechnology has applications in solving problems in pollution reduction, waste management and efficient use of energy.

Marine biotechnology is sometimes referred to as blue biotechnology and uses marine organisms and materials from marine organisms for products and processes.

Medical biotechnology is used to improve health or reduce suffering and includes the medical and veterinary medicine.


"Production of the antimalarial drug precursor artemisinic acid in engineered yeast" by Ro et al in Nature.
"Cloning and expression of the human erythropoietin gene" by Lin et al. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Genetic engineering was used to produce human proteins in hamster ovary cells.
"Construction of biologically functional bacterial plasmids in vitro" by Cohen et al. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The beginning of genetic engineering, the insertion of DNA into a living organism.
Alexander Fleming extracted penicillin, the first antibiotic, from mold

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