April 8, 2021
Introduction to Biotechnology

How does biotechnology work and what does the industry produce?

Shahira Badran

Genedu Founder, Principal Instructor and Content Expert

The pandemic placed an unprecedented spotlight on the biotech and biopharma industries, as the world eagerly awaited the discovery, development, and roll-out of COVID vaccines and treatments to finally put an end to the global economic lockdowns and their devastating outcomes. 

Although Biotechnology became a “household” term in 2020, many do not understand what the industry is based on, what it produces and what its far-reaching impact on our lives is. This blog will provide an overview of these aspects and examples of biotech real-world applications. 

Biotechnology uses living things, their parts, or processes to make products that improve human life. It is an active field of research and development, founded on the interaction between many scientific and non-scientific disciplines. Thus, the Biotechnology industry, its real-world applications, and careers are multidisciplinary in nature. The Biotechnology industry is constantly growing and advancing as novel discoveries are made and innovative technologies emerge. It relies heavily on the applications of modern recombinant DNA technology and bio-manufacturing processes

The “birth” of biotechnology generally dates back to 1972, when two scientists developed a modified DNA molecule by “recombining” DNA from two different organisms. This marked the advent of Recombinant DNA Technology. Prior to that, scientists were transferring DNA from one organism to another within the same species. 

In 1976, Genentech was founded in the Bay Area (San Francisco) to research how to make human insulin to treat diabetes using DNA technology. In 1982, Genentech received FDA approval to sell the first biotech drug, human insulin, referred to as Humulin. Humulin was produced by combining the human “insulin” gene with bacterial DNA (called plasmid) to produce recombinant DNA that was introduced into bacteria.  These “genetically modified” bacteria divided rapidly in cell culture and produced insulin from the DNA instruction in the human gene that they received. This is also referred to as Genetic Engineering, the process of modifying DNA. 

Learn about DNA and genes:

In the biotech industry, host cells (bacteria, yeast, mammalian cells) that have acquired recombinant DNA or have been otherwise genetically manipulated/modified can be grown in large volumes inside bioreactors to produce the desired proteins in large quantities. Bioreactors are large vessels filled with cell culture containing all the necessary nutrients for cells to grow, divide, and produce the desired proteins. This is  referred to as “upstream” bioprocessing. The desired proteins are harvested, purified up to 99.9 % purity, and packaged into sterile containers in a process called “downstream” bioprocessing, which allows biotech companies to market these products after obtaining FDA approval. Upstream and downstream processing together comprise Bio-manufacturing

An illustration showing how genetic modification is used to produce insulin in bacteria.

Image adapted from:

Review the genetic engineering steps:

In addition to the first biotech product insulin, the biotech industry has successfully used recombinant DNA technology to manufacture human blood clotting factor, growth hormone, interferon, and many other therapeutic proteins and products. Human blood clotting factor and growth hormone provide effective treatments to replace missing proteins in hemophilia and growth deficiency, respectively, while interferon boosts the immune system to fight cancer and viral infections. During the pandemic, recombinant DNA technology led to the discovery and development of COVID vaccines.

The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to the discovery of CRISPR genome editing, a system that acts as genetic scissors. This technology allows scientists to change DNA with precision in ways that can cure genetic diseases, prevent infectious diseases, or change the properties and behavior of organisms. The future potential of CRISPR genome editing in basic research, medicine, agriculture and beyond is unlimited. However, CRISPR genome editing also raises ethical concerns with regards to editing the genome of human embryos, since these DNA changes can be passed on to the next generation. 

Explore CRISPR applications and limitations in this video and article about this Nobel Prize discovery.

Biotechnology products are different from pharmaceutical products. Biotechnology companies derive their products from the manipulation of living organisms and/or their processes, while pharmaceutical companies make medicines and other products from chemicals and synthetic processes. The founder of Bayer AG trademarked aspirin in 1899, while Genentech received FDA approval to sell the first biotech product, human insulin, in 1982. 

Biotechnology applications span many domains including agriculture, medicine, industry, environment, DNA forensics, biomedical devices, and digital health. Thus, the final products of biotechnological applications affect many aspects of life and have far reaching social, political, and ethical implications. As a result, Biotechnology literacy has become crucial regardless of education background and profession to draw the line between science fiction and facts and help citizens make well-informed decisions about the vast array of biotech products and applications. The pandemic placed a spotlight on the urgency for Biotechnology literacy especially with regards to vaccine hesitancy and COVID misinformation, and to raise awareness for the implications of research, development and bio-manufacturing with regards to product safety, efficacy, quality, and compliance systems.

To help you gain more insight into the biotech industry and an appreciation for its impact, here is an overview of its multidisciplinary domains with links for further exploration.

Medical Biotechnology develops therapeutics that treat diseases; vaccines that prevent diseases; and diagnostic tests that identify diseases to determine the best course of treatment. Medical biotechnology has gained unprecedented global public attention, as biotech companies raced to produce therapeutics, vaccines, and diagnostic tests for COVID-19. 

Agricultural Biotechnology: involves genetically modified (GM) plants and animals that humans use. A crop is genetically modified to increase its yield and improve its quality and traits. Major crops are also genetically modified to become resistant to plant disease, environmental stress, or herbicides and pesticide. GM crops leads to sustainable farming. GM animals are used as model organisms to study the relationship between human genes and disease; to test new drugs prior to clinical studies; or to provide organs for transplantation. Some GM animals can provide cells and products for tissues culture.  

Learn more about the countries that grow GM crop by exploring this Infographic.

Industrial Biotechnology produces industrial proteins with many applications from food processing to making biofuels and even “stone-washed” jeans. Explore the advantages of using stone washing enzymes in the textile industry.

Environmental Biotechnology uses GM organisms and/or their products for bioremediation, the use of living organisms to degrade hazardous materials that pollute the environment. Some bacteria have been genetically modified to “eat” away oil carpets resulting from oil spills. 

DNA Forensics can identify individuals using their DNA profile instead of fingerprint, since 2 individuals cannot have the same DNA fingerprint except for identical twins. DNA fingerprinting is widely used in crime scene analysis, paternity testing, identifying human remains after natural disasters or acts of terror, identifying new or extinct species, and establishing familial relationships. 

Learn more about DNA forensic analysis and find out if DNA evidence alone is enough to acquit or convict a suspect:

Biomedical devices include artificial organs as well as STEM cells, CAR-T cells, and Gene Therapy. STEM cells have the potential to differentiate into any type of tissue cell to replace defective and/or damaged tissues and organs in regenerative medicine. CAR-T cells are genetically modified human immune cells that kill cancer cells. Gene therapy aims to treat certain genetic diseases by modifying or replacing faulty genes. This domain relies on the convergence of biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, nanotechnology, and computer technology. 

Learn about the nature of stem cells:

Learn about the converging technologies involved in biomedical devices:

Digital Health is the most recent domain of biotechnology. It combines digital technology with health care through digital wearable devices and apps that allow patients to directly monitor their own blood sugar level or blood pressure, or to determine when to administer medication. The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of and innovation in digital health through the widespread use of telemedicine and contact tracing apps.

Design + Development: