MadSci Network: General Biology

Re: what exactly is biotechnology?

Area: General Biology
Posted By: Jack Paxton, Faculty Crop Science Emeritus, University of Illinois
Date: Thu Feb 6 18:19:40 1997
Message ID: 854955209.Gb

Biotechnology is a coined word to represent the marriage of biology and technology. Biotechnology is generally used to refer to the use of biochemical techniques to transfer specific genetic information from one species to another. This allows the transfer of genetic information between organisms that would not normally transfer genetic information, for example between a cow and a bacterium or a yeast cell. This transfer makes it possible to generate compounds such as bovine somatotrophin in bacteria which can be grown in a laboratory. Then the bovine somatotrophin is injected into cows to increase milk production. The possibilities are virtually unlimited..A question that comes with this ability is "Do we have the wisdom to use this ability appropriately?"

By this note I have asked a friend and colleague Andrew Bent, biotechnologist at the University of Illinois to add any comments he feels might be appropriate. Thanks Andy.


What exactly is Biotechnology?

I concur with Jack Paxton's answer. The word "biotechnology" is also used at times to refer to any technologies that take biological materials out of their "normal" environment to do work for humans - i.e., not farming, but maybe beer-making, bread-making, or cheese production. But by far the most common use has to do with genetic engineering ( manipulating DNA) as well as other high-tech manipulations such as tissue culture, where individual cells are grown in test tubes, or maybe diagnostic tests like pregnancy tests that use purified enzymes and antibodies.

Regarding our wisdom to use the technology appropriately, this is a question that plagues EVERY new thing that humans do. It is very difficult to predict all future outcomes, so the whole governmental regulatory network that has been established to evaluate biotechnology is based on concepts of "likely outcomes" and "acceptable risks." People worry (appropriately) about new technologies, but are also active consumers of new technologies and form a powerful customer base that drives things forward. One can only hope that we (citizens, scientists, corporations, nations) make accurate assessments of acceptable risk as we continue the age-old process of manipulating the world around us.

- Andrew Bent

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