Biotechnology (from the Greek βίος, bìos = “life”, τέχνη, téchne = “art”, in the sense of “expertise”, “knowing how to do”, “knowing how to operate”, and λόγος, lògos = “study”) is a new and sometimes controversial branch of biology concerning ‘the use of living beings in order to obtain goods or useful services to satisfy the needs of society,’ but also the application and study of any technology developed or developable by the man to the field of biology.

“Biotechnology” means any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use.

Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) definition

Innovative biotechnology dates back to 1928, when the British physician Frederick Griffith, experimenting with a vaccine against streptococcus pneumoniae, observed that these microorganisms are able to acquire and maintain “hereditary material” from other bacteria and transform themselves. Since then, researchers around the world have been working to identify what lies behind the mysterious “transformation factor”.

Griffith is considered the father of genetic engineering: scientist of great intuition, in those years he could not know that that hereditary material was, in fact, constituted by DNA. The actual discovery took place in 1944. And in 1953 was discovered the structure of DNA and its replication mechanism. The birth of genetic engineering is, finally, something of our days and will mark a clear distance between traditional biotechnology and innovative ones.


The various techniques used in biotechnology are:

  • Recombinant DNA. It consists in extracting DNA from the cell of an organism, isolating the genes of interest and inserting them, with or without modification, inside cells of different organisms. In this way it is possible to overcome the natural biological barriers between different species, artificially modifying the genetic makeup with the insertion of foreign DNA.
  • Combinatorial Chemistry. It consists of a set of techniques that, anchoring on a surface many molecular alternatives, allows to obtain in parallel many chemical reactions. In this way, the same substance can be made to react with different molecules. This makes it possible to identify a particular compound within a large set of products.
  • Antisense technology. This is an application that allows nucleic acids to be acted upon in order to inhibit the manufacture of proteins. By inserting ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules or antisense DNA strands into cells, the molecular sequence by which a given gene is expressed as a protein is interrupted. This technique is showing promise in the treatment of genetic diseases, infectious diseases, and cancers.
  • Genetic engineering. set of techniques that allow to modify the characteristics of organisms. They aim to detach a gene from the genome of an organism and insert it into that of another in order to obtain, for example, bacteria capable of producing drugs, to modify viruses and bacteria and make them capable of transferring to plants and animals foreign genes that improve their characteristics, to produce animals “humanized” organs that can be transplanted into humans, to insert in human cells “healthy” genes in place of defective ones responsible for about 4 thousand hereditary diseases (gene therapy).
  • Cloning: technique that allows you to create an identical copy of an organism. To clone an animal, for example, you take from the tissues of his body a single somatic cell from which you extract the nucleus with all the genetic material it contains. It is then transferred to an egg cell, deprived of the original nucleus, from a female of the same species. The egg thus modified is implanted in the uterus of the female who will give birth to a clone, that is a faithful copy of the animal of departure.
  • Biolistics: method that takes its cue from the fusion of the words “biology” and “ballistics”, as it bombards the cells of plants to be modified, usually monocotyledons such as wheat, corn and rice, with tiny beads of gold covered with genes that you want to insert. The surviving cells that have managed to acquire the new genes will give rise to transgenic seedlings.


There are about 10 branches of biotechnology, most of which are identified by one of the colors of the rainbow in international jargon:

  • Red biotechnology or “medical, veterinary and pharmaceutical biotechnology”: This is the branch of biotechnology that deals with biomedical and pharmaceutical processes. It deals with the discovery, extraction, isolation or production of active ingredients, the production of vaccines and the development of new techniques for the analysis and diagnosis of diseases and related gene and cell therapies (in particular the use of CRISPR for gene therapy and the use of stem cells for regenerative medicine), to be applied to both humans and other animals. Its sub-branches are “molecular biotechnology”, “cellular biotechnology” and “reproductive biotechnology”, identified by the same color;
  • Green biotechnology or “agricultural or plant biotechnology”: this is the branch of biotechnology that deals with agricultural processes. It is devoted to the development of GMO products, antioxidants, bioreactors, and bioinsecticides, as well as the development of new cultivation techniques (such as micropropagation) and methods to improve fermentation;
  • Yellow biotechnology or “food biotechnology”: this is the field of biotechnology concerned with the study of foods, their composition and properties, with particular interest in human and animal health. It also searches them for the possible presence of contaminants and toxicants and is dedicated to the study of aspects of their supply chain. Finally, it may target the production of specific foods, such as genetically modified, functional, nutraceutical, gluten-free, lactose-free, and light (i.e., reduced saturated fat) foods. Green biotechnology and yellow biotechnology are often considered together as “agro-food biotechnology” and identified with the color green;
  • White biotechnology or “industrial biotechnology”: this is the area of biotechnology that deals with processes of industrial interest. The main applications in this area involve the use of enzymes to speed up chemical reactions and improve their yield;
  • Gray biotechnology or “environmental biotechnology”: this is the area of biotechnology that deals with the preservation and protection of the environment and biodiversity. It focuses on the detection, tracking and removal of pollutants, xenobiotics and harmful contaminants from various ecosystems, bioremediation and waste recycling, mainly using enzymes or organisms such as bacteria, fungi or plants. It is also devoted to the development of biofuels. Brown biotechnology or “soil biotechnology” is one of its subdivisions, which deals with soil remediation, especially of arid and desert soils, using species that are highly resistant to these types of soils;
  • Blue biotechnology or “marine biotechnology”: this is the branch of biotechnology concerned with the application of the knowledge and techniques inherent in molecular biology to marine and freshwater organisms in order to develop goods and services useful to society;
  • Gold biotechnology or “bioinformatics biotechnology and nanobiotechnology”: this is the field concerned with bioinformatics, a discipline aimed at creating databases to store and search biological information for multiple purposes. This field also includes nanotechnology, both of which are related to biotechnology;
  • Black/dark biotechnology or “bioterrorism biotechnology”: this is the field of biotechnology related to bioterrorism. It studies the properties of microorganisms and substances for use in the production of biological weapons or to neutralize their harmful effects;
  • Purple biotechnology or “legal and ethical biotechnology” – this is the field that focuses on the study of the legal, moral and ethical aspects of biotechnology;
  • Orange biotechnology or “divulgative biotechnology”: this is the branch of biotechnology that is concerned with the dissemination to society of the knowledge, discoveries and ideas peculiar to this discipline and training in this field.

As for the branch of “advanced biotechnology”, which encompasses all the other branches, with a focus on “medical, pharmaceutical and veterinary biotechnology” and “industrial biotechnology”, it is identified in international jargon as “red biotechnology” and therefore with the color red.

Historical background

The birth of biotechnology can be traced back to 1857, when Louis Pasteur described the mechanisms of leavening and fermentation. Other historical dates were 1878, with the discovery of leavening enzymes, and 1929, with the recognition of enzymes as proteins. Further steps forward were the research on heredity by the monk Gregor Mendel (1856-1866), the demonstration of the process of bacterial transformation (1928) and, finally, the discovery of the structure of the genetic code by James Watson and Francis Crick (1953).

It has been a long road, but it has prepared the ground for what has been the decisive impetus for the development of biotechnology: the development of recombinant DNA technology in 1973, which paved the way for genetic engineering. Since then, biotechnology has entered a new phase of development, known as innovative biotechnology, with achievements in the fields of pharmacology and medicine, agriculture and food.

In the field of tissue engineering, biotechnology has made tremendous progress: epithelial cells cultured on a biocompatible artificial scaffold, such as hyaluronic acid, and then stimulated with appropriate growth factors, proliferate rapidly, allowing human-like skin transplants.

In industrial microbiology, it is possible to produce in microorganisms proteins typical of other organisms, but in controlled quantities and with modified structures to increase their functional value. Innovative developments also concern fermentation, bioconversion and biodegradation processes for urban and industrial waste disposal, again using specific microorganisms.

In agriculture, new biotechnologies have improved the production of plant varieties that are resistant to pathogens and herbicides, capable of utilizing atmospheric nitrogen, and able to produce high-protein, high-value seeds that are resistant to adverse chemical and climatic conditions. In the field of bioinsecticides, traditional but highly polluting and harmful to humans and animals chemicals have been replaced by the use of new substances produced by microorganisms and biologically manipulated microorganisms with insecticidal activity to protect crops from pests (bacteria, fungi, viruses).

In medicine, biodiagnostics has also benefited from new biotechnologies, in particular the now widespread production and use of monoclonal antibodies. Monoclonal antibodies are used for in vitro and in vivo assays of proteins, hormones, drugs, viral, bacterial and neoplasm-associated antigens, as well as for localization of even small tumors and metastases. Monoclonal antibodies have been used experimentally in cancer therapy to selectively deliver toxins and chemotherapeutics only to cancer cells.

Gene therapy has also benefited from new biotechnologies. For example, it is now possible to insert a specific gene into an organism to restore a function that may have been altered or absent from birth; to use animals as “bioreactors,” that is, to create transgenic animals capable of producing pharmacologically active substances that the animal does not produce naturally; and to develop vaccines that are no longer based on the entire microorganism (killed or attenuated) but only on its non-infectious genetic components, which are also capable of eliciting an immune response from the organism.

Finally, the development of biotechnology has made it possible to improve techniques for fertilization and in vitro growth of embryos and their subsequent reimplantation in utero.

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