DEFINITION of 'Biotechnology'

The use of living organisms to make products or run processes. Biotechnology is best known for its huge role in the field of medicine, and also finds application in other areas such as food and fuel. As biotechnology involves understanding how living organisms function at the molecular level, it combines a number of disciplines – biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, science and technology. Modern biotechnology continues to make very significant contributions to extending the human lifespan and improving the quality of life through numerous ways, including providing products and therapies to combat diseases, generating higher crop yields, and using biofuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The term “biotechnology” is believed to have been coined in 1919 by Hungarian engineer Karl Ereky. Also known as “biotech.”

BREAKING DOWN 'Biotechnology'

Biotechnology in its basic form has found application for thousands of years, when humans first learnt to produce bread, beer and wine using the natural process of fermentation. For centuries, the principles of biotechnology were restricted to agriculture – harvesting better crops and improving yields by using the best seeds – and breeding livestock.

The field of biotechnology began to develop rapidly from the 19th century, with the discovery of microorganisms, Mendel’s study of genetics, and ground-breaking work on fermentation and microbial processes by giants in the field such as Pasteur and Lister. Early 20th century biotechnology led to the major discovery by Alexander Fleming of penicillin, large-scale production of which was achieved in the 1940s.

Biotechnology took off from the 1950s, spurred by a better understanding in the post-war period of cell function and molecular biology. Every decade since then has produced major breakthroughs in biotechnology. These include the discovery of the 3D structure of DNA in the '50s; insulin synthesis and the development of vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella in the '60s; massive strides in DNA research in the '70s; the development of the first biotech-derived drugs and vaccines to treat diseases such as cancer and hepatitis B in the '80s; the identification of numerous genes and the introduction of new treatments in decades for managing multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis in the '90s; and the completion of the human genome sequence in the '90s, which made it possible for scientists worldwide to research new treatments for diseases with genetic origins like cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.

The biotechnology sector has grown by leaps and bounds since the 1990s. The industry has spawned giant companies in the medical space such as Gilead Sciences, Amgen, Biogen Idec and Celgene. At the other extreme are thousands of small, dynamic biotech companies, many of which are engaged in various aspects of the medical industry such as drug development, genomics, or proteomics, while others are  involved in areas like bioremediation, biofuels and food products.