What is biotechnology?

Biotechnology is defined as any technical application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use. As such, biotechnology has existed since the human race first used fermentation to make bread, cheese and wine.

Modern biotechnology refers to the understanding and application of genetic information of animal and plants species. Genetic engineering modifies the functioning of genes in the same species or moves genes across species.

Starting with the discovery, in 1953, of the way genetic information is passed from generation to generation, modern biotechnology developed at an accelerating pace in the second half of the 20th century.

The mapping of the human genome, i.e. the identification of the approximately 25,000 genes that encode the hereditary characteristics of a human being, accomplished in 2000, has been described as a ‘quantum leap' in biology.

In agriculture, applications of biotechnology concentrate on the genetic modifications of existing plant and animal species, by means of genetic material implantation from one species to another, where natural crossbreeding does not function. Gene-modified (GM) crops, corn, soya and other oilseeds are, so far, the main applications.

A growing area of industrial biotechnology is the development of products and techniques for cleaning up pollution caused by agriculture, industry or urbanization – this is known as environmental biotechnology or ‘bioremediation'.

In the course of its short history, modern biotechnology has given rise to a multitude of products and processes in the life sciences fields. The very first commercial biotechnology product ever created was synthetic insulin, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1982. Biotechnology has created more than 200 new therapies and vaccines, including products to treat cancer, diabetes, HIV/ AIDS and autoimmune disorders.