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What is Biotechnology?

Perhaps you have heard of the term biotechnology and wondered what it is. You may think you know already – after all, the parts that make up the word are very familiar: bio + technology. You have seen the first part of the word in biology, antibiotics, all sorts of words. It comes from Greek bios, which means ‘life’.

As for technology, it is not just about computers and smartphones. Technology is the practical use of knowledge to create useful things and solve problems. You might like to think of it as tech-knowledge-y. So, taking it one step further, biotechnology is about using biology in technology.

We talked to Alessandra Iscaro, a biotechnology researcher at the University of Florence, Italy, and she explained to us what it is all about.

“Biotechnology is a technological application of biology. It makes use of biological systems and organisms, with the aim to modify products and processes. It is the biology sector that uses organisms or their derivatives to obtain something useful for society.”

This means that it tries to use living things, living organisms, or things that come from living organisms (derivatives) to improve things that we use.

“Signora Iscaro, could you give us some examples of how biotechnology could be used?”

“Of course. For example, biotechnology is important in the agro-industrial sector. It is used in food production, especially for wine and beer. Microorganisms, which are very very tiny lifeforms, such as bacteria, are essential to this, and biotechnology is about understanding them and improving their role.”

“This is not the only sector, of course. Biotechnology is also crucial to the development of medicine, not only the therapies and treatments themselves, but also diagnostic instruments, which help us to discover the nature of the illness affecting a patient, so that it can be better treated.”

“I expect you have already heard of some of the substances that are produced through an understanding of biotech – some bacteria are used to produce insulin, which you will have heard of in connection to diabetic people, as well as antibiotics.”

Signora Iscaro explained to us that biotechnology is generally colour coded according to the sector it is used in:

  • Blue biotechnologies that are related to marine organisms with the aim to improve marine resources.

  • Grey Biotechnologies that are related to the environment with the aim to save biodiversity.

  • Green Biotechnologies that are related to the agro-industrial sector with the aim to improve the productivity of rural areas.

  • Red Biotechnologies that are related to pharmaceuticals (medicines) to develop new medical therapies.

  • White Biotechnologies that are related to the industrial sector to improve food production with the use of enzymes.

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