What is Biotechnology? Definition, Types, Applications and their Examples

Biotechnology is the use of living organisms or their products to create or modify products for utilitarian purposes . In its simplest version, biotechnology is technology based on biology.

The human being uses biotechnology thousands of years ago. With recent advances in various scientific areas related to the functioning of DNA, organisms can be manipulated to obtain certain products and processes.

All cells “speak” the same genetic language: the DNA of one cell can be read by another completely different cell. This fact makes DNA the basis of modern biotechnology . Biotechnologists can use a yeast to produce human insulin by fitting the human insulin gene into the yeast.

Applications of biotechnology

In medicine

  • Production of insulin, medicines and vaccines.
  • Manipulation of animals, such as pigs, to use their organs in transplants, which is known as xenotransplantation.
  • Production of antibodies in the laboratory for patients with deficiencies in the immune system.
  • Genetic therapy for the treatment of neurological, cardiovascular and oncological diseases.
  • Research on stem cells for therapeutic purposes.

In agriculture

  • Production of inputs: fertilizers, seeds, agrotoxics.
  • Genetic improvement of plants.
  • Food processing: transgenic foods.

In the environment

  • Bioremediation: depending on the type of contamination and the environmental conditions, different techniques are used to reduce or eliminate contaminants.
  • Bioconversion of waste from agriculture.
  • Production of biofuels from living organisms or plant residues.
  • Production of biodegradable plastic from microalgae.


One of the first techniques used by biotechnology is bioprocessing: using the cells or their components to obtain the desired products. The microbial fermentation is an ancient example bioprocessing. Through fermentation it is possible to obtain bread, cheeses, wines, beers and many other products.

Recently, cell culture is used in the laboratory or industry to obtain medicines, vitamins, proteins and antibodies. Cell culture is based on growing cells outside their original organism.

Recombinant DNA

The term recombinant DNA refers to “joining” two pieces of DNA from different organisms . With the techniques of recombinant DNA you can choose the gene of an organism that interests us, and introduce it into another living being.

Monoclonal antibodies

The monoclonal antibody technique uses cells of the immune system to produce proteins called antibodies. The antibodies help the body fight against foreign agents such as bacteria and viruses.


Cloning allows reproducing a genetically identical population of molecules, cells, plants or animals.

Protein engineering

The protein engineering technique allows modifying existing proteins to create new proteins. For example, protein engineering is being used in enzymes for use in industrial processes.

Advantages and disadvantages of biotechnology

Many of the applications of biotechnology are beneficial for humanity, but generate controversy regarding the consequences on human and animal health, environmental impacts and on society. The truth is that its long-term effects are still unknown. Next, we list a set of advantages and disadvantages of biotechnology.

  • Increase in food production, mainly motivated by the possibility of ending hunger in the world.
  • Possibility of obtaining more nutritious foods with medicinal properties.
  • Therapeutic techniques for incurable diseases.
  • Production of medicines, in addition to antibodies and hormones such as insulin.
  • Use of bioremediation to control and eliminate environmental contamination.
  • Preparation of biodegradable products to reduce environmental pollution.

Disadvantages of biotechnology

  • Intensive use of agrotoxins and inorganic fertilizers.
  • Interference in the balance of nature.
  • Creation of infertile genetically modified seeds.
  • “Genetic contamination”, since it is not possible to calculate the effects of the spread of genetically modified organisms in the environment.
  • Transgenic foods can cause allergies.
  • Ethical problems related to the cloning of living beings.
  • The production of stem cells produces cellular stress that can result in early aging.

History of biotechnology

Biotechnology appears for the first time to make bread and beer with yeasts in Egypt, around 4,000 years ago. In Sumeria, China and Egypt, cheese and wine are being produced through the fermentation process.

In 1675, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek discovers the bacteria. More than a century later, in 1797, the English surgeon Edward Jenner performed the first vaccination.

Genetics begins with the studies of Gregor Mendel in 1865. Using Darwin’s theory, crosses are made from cotton plants, developing varieties with superior qualities.

In 1914, bacteria are used for the first time to treat sewage in Manchester, England.

In 1928, the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in a mushroom crop and in 1942 he began mass production.

In 1944, Oswald Avery and colleagues discovered that DNA carries genetic information. The synthesis of DNA in a test tube in 1958 is performed for the first time.

In 1973, biochemists Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer perfected DNA manipulation techniques and produced a new DNA in a bacterium. Research using genetically modified microbes for industrial applications begins.

In 1975, the first monoclonal antibody was produced and in 1978 recombinant human insulin was produced for the first time.

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