I have heard a lot about biotechnology, but what is it?

Hello bloggers and readers, I am introducing a new category to answer the most frequently asked questions about biotechnology since I want my blog to be more like a personal weblog than a scientific journal. If you have similar questions, leave them in the comments section, and I will address them in upcoming sections. 

Being a biotechnologist, I have been frequently asked the question – ‘What is biotechnology?’ 

This question made me believe that people are quite inquisitive about the topic, and therefore, I would set aside my task at hand and articulately answer their question for an hour. However, this was just my perception while the people were just looking for a one-liner that could explain the answer. So most often than not, before I could finish, they would interject with, “-Oh, It’s almost like biology.” 

This incident occurred time and again, leaving me speechless, and I often wondered if this was a generalized pre-conceived notion or just something they figured out by fragmenting the term. Surprisingly, hardly anyone mistakes chemical engineering for being similar to chemistry when they consider biochemical engineering similar to biochemistry?

Whatever may be the reason, I couldn’t let them continue with the inaccurate fact, and I would then spend another hour or so demystifying the misconception and further elaborating on how biotechnology is different from biology.

Over time, I realized several major issues. First, when people asked the question, they didn’t really want a textbook answer or a textbook definition. Second, I needed to capture their interest within the first two sentences before elaborating further on the topic. From then on, I started by introducing the current applications to make people relate to the field. 

The first example that I used for introducing biotechnology was ‘brewing and alcoholic fermentation.’ Everyone recognizes that Yeasts are the key to producing alcohol. However, the technique for making millions of tonnes of alcohol is not as simple as mixing grape juice with yeast. Before even reaching the production stage, several key parameters like the quality of feed-stock (that is, grapes), the yeast strain, the process conditions (ideal temperature, pH, oxygen concentration, etc.), yield (ratio of alcohol to grapes), cultivation time, the metabolic pathways, etc. need to be extensively researched. Further investigations are then performed to improve these physio-chemical parameters by utilizing different techniques from molecular biology, Recombinant DNA technology, metabolic engineering, biochemical engineering, etc., to make the process cost-effective and economical for the industrialists to profit from the investment. 

Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

All of the strategies mentioned above constitute biotechnology. Had it been biology, the research would probably stop at Yeasts can produce alcohol. This is just a single process that can be revised to produce other compounds like proteins, enzymes, hormones (such as insulin), vaccines, pro-biotics, etc. Biotechnology is a rather particular scientific field with a constantly expanding scope of applications. Therefore, different processes and techniques are being identified and developed to include modern fields like biomedical engineering, bioinformatics, systems biology, and so on. 

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