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Biotechnology refers to technology based on biology – that is, it exploits biological systems, living organisms or part of this to cultivate or create different products. Traditional processes to bake bread, brew beer, or make cheese are rudimentary examples of biotechnology, as they use a living organism (yeast or milk bacteria) to produce the desired product [1]. The development of genetic engineering in the 1970s has progressed biotechnology approaches to involve more advanced modification of genetic material [1]. There are four major types of biotechnology – medical, industrial, agricultural, and marine – which are categorised according to colour (Refer to Table 1) and often said to heal, fuel, and feed the world. Advances in research are constantly adding new fields of biotechnology – yellow (insects), grey (living organisms), brown (desert-like soils), gold (bioinformatics), violet (legal aspects), and dark (malicious purposes) [2].

Table 1: Biotechnology types
Type Colour Description [2]
Medical Red Uses biological materials to find solutions to health-related problems, such as producing new pharmaceutical drugs, antibodies, proteins, and vaccines, with the aim of enhancing quality of life, detecting disease earlier, and relieving the experience of pain and suffering.

Well-known examples are genomics, proteomics, nanotechnology, stem cell treatments, and monoclonal antibodies.

Industrial White The largest branch of biotechnology, affecting sectors such as textile, food, and energy. This biotechnology focuses on using technology to construct new processes with the use of less natural resources and energy, like cells originating from plants, bacteria, and yeast, that also produce less waste.

A well-known example is the use of bacterial enzymes to manufacture food and also washing powder.

Agricultral Green Centres on technologies related to agriculture, such as discovering ways to generate stronger crops and improve crop yields or creating new biopesticides to decrease chemical use amongst farmers.

Well-known examples are the conversion of plants into biofuels, assisting plants to thrive through frost using genetic manipulation, artificial insemination to increase animal breeding, and reproductive cloning.

Marine Blue Focuses on using marine organisms such as shellfish, algae, and other substances for human purposes like new medicines or food supplements.

A well-known example is the use of ziconotide, an effective analgesic derived from the venom of cone snails.

Nurses and midwives were involved in only a few biomolecular therapies fifty years ago (insulin and human growth hormone) however biotechnology organisations have progressed a vast array of options in oncology, ageing, genetic abnormalities, and many more. Once-fatal diseases such as HIV and many cancers are now chronic conditions or have been effectively cured due to innovative biotechnology medicines [3]. Biotechnology is now responsible for the development of rapid, accurate, personalised and low-cost diagnostic and prognostic systems which are often based on information and communications technology [4].

Vaccines have also been changed thanks to biotechnology. Rather than traditional vaccines, which required the dead pathogen or an attenuated form of the pathogen, newer vaccines such as DNA and RNA use part of a virus’ own genetic code to stimulate an immune response. DNA vaccines became available a decade ago, and work through plasmid DNA inducing an immune response to the plasmid-encoded antigen [5]. COVID-19 vaccines are of the newer RNA type, which do not affect or interact with our DNA in any way. These vaccines give instructions to our cells to make a protein piece (spike protein), at which time the cell breaks down the instructions [5]. The immune systems recognise that the spike protein is foreign, so commence building an immune response and producing antibodies.

Despite the advancements in medical biotechnology offering hope to a range of individuals and creating new possibilities for curing disease, there are several concerns and issues, including risk to human life, high costs, privacy concerns, moral and ethical perspectives, and the potential for bioterrorism [6].

Biotechnology is predicted to become as common as having a smartphone by 2030, pervading our lives from drugs, medicine and therapeutics to environmentally friendly chemicals, fuels and materials [7], nurses and midwives need to increase their knowledge in this area so they can translate the information to the individuals in their care. It is, after all, our data that drives the development of biotechnology solutions to improve healthcare systems [8].

Dr Jen Bichel-Findlay, September 2021

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  • [1] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2021 23 Biotechnology, Britannica. Available here
  • [2] Brinson P & Brinson N 2020 Types of biotechnology explained: 4 biotech colors. Biotech Health. Available here
  • [3] Simon F & Giovannetti G 2017 Managing biotechnology: from science to market in the digital age. Wiley: Hoboken, NJ. Available here
  • [4] Lee SY 2013 How could biotechnology improve your life? World Economic Forum. Available here
  • [5] Hensley L 2020 what’s the difference between a DNA and RNA vaccine? VeryWellHealth. Available here
  • [6] Western Governors University (WGU) 2021 Medical biotechnology: advancement and ethics. WGU. Available here
  • [7] Lee SY 2016 Biotechnology: what it is and how it’s about to change our lives? World Economic Forum: Available here
  • [8] O’Day E & Lee SY 2019 Who holds the key to the future of biotechnology? You do. World Economic Forum. Available here

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