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Biotechnology Division (NIST Chemical Science and Technology Laboratory)

Biotechnology is the use of microorganisms, such as bacteria or yeast, or biological substances, such as enzymes, to perform specific industrial or manufacturing processes.

Applications include the production of certain drugs, synthetic hormones, and bulk foodstuffs as well as the bioconversion of organic waste and the use of genetically altered bacteria in the cleanup of oil spills.[1]

Agricultural Applications

Modifying plants.jpg
Main Article: Agriculture

Advances in biotechnology have opened up research opportunities in many areas of agricultural and food science, including commercial applications in agriculture, environmental remediation, and the food industry. Interest in the production of biofuels, or fuels manufactured from agricultural derivatives, has also increased. Some agricultural scientists work with biologists and chemists to develop processes for turning crops into energy sources, such as ethanol produced from corn.

In the past two decades, rapid advances in the study of genetics have spurred the growth of agricultural biotechnology. Some agricultural and food scientists use biotechnology to manipulate the genetic material of plants and crops, attempting to make these organisms more productive or resistant to disease. (See: genetic engineering)[2]

The intended effects of genetic engineering can fall into three main categories: input traits, output traits, and value-added traits. The input traits could help the producers have more control on chemicals required to manage insects, diseases, and weeds, and lowering the cost of production, improving crop yields. Output trait helps consumers by enhancing the quality of the food and fiber products they use.(Purves, P332)

Another emerging technology expected to affect agriculture is nanotechnology—a molecular manufacturing technology which promises to revolutionize methods of testing agricultural and food products for contamination or spoilage. Some food scientists are using nanotechnology to develop sensors that can quickly and accurately detect contaminant molecules in food.[2]

Biotechnology has found a lot of applications in agriculture (shows in the table below), ranging from improving the nutritional properties of the crops by using animals as a gene production factories to using changeable crops to make oral vaccines.(Purves, P332)

Problem Technology/Genes
Improving the environmental adaptations of plants Genes for drought tolerance, salt tolerance
Improving breeding Male sterility for hybrid seeds
Improving nutritional traits High-lysine seeds
Improving crops after harvest Delay of fruit ripening; sweeter vegetables
Using plants as bioreactors Plastics, oils, and drugs produced in plants
Controlling crop pests Herbicide tolerance; resistance to viruses, bacteria, fungi, insects

Medical Application

Insulin injections for the treatment of diabetes.
Main Article: Medicine

Swift advances in basic medical knowledge related to genetics and organic molecules have spurred growth in the field of biotechnology. Discovery of important drugs, including human insulin and growth hormone, is the result of research using biotechnology techniques, such as recombining DNA. Many other substances not previously available in large quantities are now produced by biotechnological means; some may one day be useful in treating diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Today, many medical scientists are involved in the science of genetic engineering—isolating, identifying, and sequencing human genes to determine their functions. This work continues to lead to the discovery of genes associated with specific diseases and inherited health risks, such as sickle cell anemia. These advances in biotechnology have opened up research opportunities in almost all areas of medical science.[3]

DNA bands separated by polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis and made visible by staining with Ethidium Bromide and viewing under ultra violet light.

The first clinical gene therapy is underway to correct an enzyme deficiency called ADA in children. Bone marrow cells are removed, defective DNA in bone marrow cells is supplemented with a copy of normal DNA, and the repaired cells are then returned to the patient's body.[1]

Some proteins that are useful in medicine are also made by biotechnology, and there are still hundreds more of them being developed. Those products that have been developed such as tissue plasminogen activator, illustrate the techniques that have been used. One example for this use in biotechnology is the recombinant DNA. This kind of DNA has solved the problem of heart attacks and strokes caused by blood clots. The TPA mRNA are used to made a copy of the cDNA, and it's then inserted into an expression vector and transfected into E. coli. And the transgenic bacteria made the protein in quantity, and it soon becomes available commercially and, more importantly, available for use to save patients' lives. (Purves, P331)

Product Use
Colony-stimulating factor Stimulates production of white blood cells in patients with cancer and AIDS
Erythropoietin Prevents anemia in patients undergoing kidney dialysis and cancer therapy
Factor VIII Replaces clotting factor missing in patients with hemophilia A
Growth hormone Replaces missing hormone in people of short stature
Insulin Stimulates glucose uptake from blood in people with insulin-dependent (Type I) diabetes
Platelet-derived growth factor Stimulates wound healing
Tissue plasminogen activator Dissolves blood clots after heart attacks and strokes
Vaccine proteins: Hepatitis B, herpes, influenza, lyme disease, meningitis, pertussis, etc. Prevent and treat infectious diseases

Genetic Engineering

Main Article: Genetic engineering



  1. 1.0 1.1 Principles of Biotechnology North Central Regional Extension, Iowa State University, March 1994. Accessed August 23, 2008.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition: Agricultural and Food Scientists
  3. Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition: Medical Scientists by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics