If you’re interested in science and you want to make a difference, the field of biotechnology might appeal to you. Using technology to influence biological systems, processes, and organisms is how many modern scientists develop solutions to problems involving the environment, food production, and human health and the treatment of various diseases, as well as other pressing real-world issues. Biotechnology covers a vast array of research applications that span many industries.
Breaking Down the Field of Biotechnology
As a field, biotechnology may sound highly technical and specific, but it’s actually very broad. After all, the field of biotechnology encompasses all kinds of technological solutions, innovations, and applications that are drawn from, use, or are applied to the natural science of biology, the study of life and living organisms.
As such, this field encompasses all varieties of living things and a wide array of different branches of engineering technology. Biotechnology is closely related to genetic engineering and encompasses numerous general areas of application and, more specifically, at least 10 research areas categorized by color.
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The Link Between Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering
Modern biotechnology wouldn’t be possible without drawing from the field of genetics, a branch of biology primarily focused on the study of the genes that make up the DNA of living things and on heredity, the inheritance of genes over generations. In fact, multinational biotechnology company Amgen called genetics “the cornerstone of modern biotechnology.”
Closely related to genetic engineering is the field of synthetic biology. This interdisciplinary area is concerned with the redesigning and engineering of organisms, ranging from microorganisms to food crops, to give these organisms a useful ability or characteristic they did not previously have. The goals of research in synthetic biology tend to align with goals in genetic engineering and biotechnology more generally, but the methods used to accomplish the goals are somewhat different than typical genetic engineering methods.
Branches of Genetic Engineering
Understanding genetics and the makeup, functions, and inheritance of genes is the foundation that allows scientists and engineers to alter living things through genetic manipulation and modification. In their work, today’s biotechnology companies and organizations utilize the 5 major branches of genetics:
- Molecular genetics: The branch of genetics concerned with studying genes at the molecular level.
- Population genetics: The branch of genetics that looks at the distribution and evolution of genes and genetic traits across populations.
- Clinical genetics: The study and clinical treatment of heritable, or genetically inherited, diseases and medical conditions.
- Cytogenetics: The study of chromosomes, the DNA molecules that contain genetic materials and information used in the creation of life.
- Phylogenetics: The study of evolutionary history and of relationships between groups—the populations of which may be alive or extinct—as they pertain to heritable traits.
Genetic engineering allows professionals in the field of biotechnology to alter biological systems, processes, and materials for the purpose of selecting certain desirable characteristics or outcomes. Through genetic engineering, scientists and engineers can develop the biological materials and processes that help them achieve their goals for improving life in a number of ways.
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The Basics of Genetic Engineering Methods
To accomplish manipulation or modification through genetic engineering, scientists and engineers typically start by identifying and isolating the piece(s) of DNA they need. They then insert that DNA into a vector, which is a material—often a strand of DNA or a non-harmful “virus”—that acts as a vehicle for delivering the DNA to a host cell.
Once integrated and activated within these living cells, the genetic material can grow, deliver therapeutic interventions in a targeted way or otherwise produce the proteins that manipulate the function and structure of the cells that make up a living thing.
What Are the 4 Types of Biotechnology Applications?
The list of potential applications for biotechnology is almost endless. To organize and differentiate these areas of biotechnology, people in the industry group the different types of biotechnology research endeavors and applications into distinct areas, which they happen to categorize by color.
The “big four” main areas of biotechnology are color-coded as red, green, blue, and white, and they relate to medical, agriculture, marine, and industrial biotechnology, respectively.
Red Biotechnology: Medical Biotechnology
Human health is, naturally, an area that biotechnology researchers are eager to explore. Red biotechnology is the area of the field that encompasses research and applications in all types of medical biotechnology.
You might think initially of the development of traditional pharmaceutical drugs used for human health purposes. Developing new medicines based on biological processes—particularly those that take into account and work with individuals’ different genetic makeup—is certainly one application of medical biotechnology. However, other solutions and innovations involving the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of human diseases also fit under this branch of biotechnology.
Efforts in creating artificial organs to treat organ failure are part of the field of medical biotechnology. So is identifying genetic markers that are associated with heritable diseases and using that knowledge to develop targeted treatments. Experts in medical biotechnology are now working on research in developing innovative regenerative therapies and finding cures for various diseases that, as of now, remain poorly understood.
As you might guess, innovations in red biotechnology—an area that, in particular, has made significant progress—play a big role in actively advancing the quality and longevity of human life.
Green Biotechnology: Agricultural-Focused Environmental Biotechnology
Agriculture, the farming and cultivating of plants and animals for human use, is important for food supply and the economy. However, the tools and processes used in agriculture aren’t always good for the environment. The scientists and engineers who work in the area of green biotechnology strive to make agriculture more efficient, successful, and environmentally friendly.
Through work in green environmental biotechnology, scientists and engineers make innovations in all areas of agriculture, often through the genetic manipulation of farmed plants and animals.
Plant Biotechnology Applications
A major area of focus among green biotechnology professionals who focus on plant biotechnology is the development of transgenic plants. Transgenic plants are plants that have been genetically modified by the addition of genes from other plants.
The reasons scientists work to develop transgenic plants vary. Some plants are genetically engineered for purely or primarily aesthetic purposes, like creating new colors of flowers and decorative plant species. However, many transgenic plants are created for practical purposes, like improving food crop yields by making plants heartier, easier to grow, and more resistant to threats. Of particular interest is the engineering of plants with abiotic stress resistance, which means that they can survive environmental stresses such as extreme temperatures, too much or too little water, and exposure to high levels of saline (salt) in the soil or water.
Green biotechnology professionals who specialize in plant biotechnology often develop genetically engineered crops for human consumption—including fruits, vegetables, and herbs—as well as those used as feed for animal consumption. However, plant biotechnology efforts aren’t limited to food crops.
Scientists and engineers may also work on the genetic modification of plants used for other purposes. These purposes range from decorative landscaping to serving as the raw materials that can be used in the medical and pharmaceutical industries, the energy production industry, or other industrial and manufacturing areas. This area of biotechnology is also involved in the development of plants that can serve as renewable raw materials for fuel and energy production.
Animal Biotechnology Applications of Agricultural Biotechnology
Farming animals, often for the purposes of meat production or dairy product production, is another area of agriculture that fits within this area of biotechnology. Genetic engineering plays a role in multiple areas of animal agriculture, including animal breeding and animal health. These changes are often achieved through genetic engineering, in which scientists and engineers examine, identify, isolate, and integrate animal cells into new genomes.
Modern biotechnology practices in animal agriculture take conventional methods of selective breeding to new levels. Through innovations in biotechnology, it’s possible to modify the size, temperament, physical characteristics, and disease resistance of the animals produced through these processes.
Lowering Greenhouse Gas Emissions With Green Biotechnology Applications
Green biotechnology is a form of environmental biotechnology. Perhaps the clearest example of this is its applications in lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
Agricultural activities of all kinds contribute to the emissions of these gases that trap heat within the Earth’s atmosphere and contribute to the “greenhouse” effect and, in turn, climate change (sometimes called “global warming”). In fact, animal agriculture—an essential part of the meat production and dairy farming industries—contributes significantly to the production of greenhouse gases.
By identifying more sustainable and environmentally conscious agricultural methods to replace conventional methods of farming, biotechnology professionals are reducing waste, pollution, and greenhouse gas production. Their work can help make farming activities better for the planet.
Blue Biotechnology: Marine Biotechnology
Marine resources, valuable natural and biological materials that come from ocean ecosystems, are the focus of blue biotechnology. Marine biotechnology professionals use many of the same techniques as scientists and engineers in other areas of the field, but they apply these methods specifically to the exploration and exploitation of resources and materials found in the ocean.
Why is blue biotechnology so important? Marine resources are used in many industries, from healthcare and cosmetics to food and fuels. The work done by researchers in blue biotechnology provides valuable raw materials used in other areas of biotechnology and science and engineering more generally.
White Biotechnology: Industrial Biotechnology
Rounding out the four primary branches of biotechnology is white biotechnology, the area that is concerned with industrial processes. The goal of industrial biotechnology is to streamline and improve manufacturing and other industrial processes to make them less wasteful, more sustainable, and more efficient.
White biotechnology is another area that affects numerous other related areas. The commercial production methods that are studied and streamlined in this field are involved in activities ranging from food processing to pharmaceutical development and distribution. Another important area of exploration in industrial biotechnology is biofuels. In today’s petrochemical-based economy, renewable energy sources must be not only environmentally sustainable but also cost-effective to produce and distribute.
Biotechnology Research and Development Color Categorizations
Medical, environmental, marine, and industrial biotechnology may be the major types of biotechnology research and development, but there are other areas of application, as well. The types of biotechnology applications are categorized using nearly every color of the rainbow (and then some).
Yellow Biotechnology: Food Production Biotechnology
Food production biotechnology isn’t new, nor is it necessarily high-tech. In fact, the traditional processes of using yeast—a living organism—to make bread rise or brew beer are technically a form of yellow biotechnology, also called nutritional biotechnology and even insect biotechnology. Of course, professionals studying and working in the field of food biotechnology today often undertake more intensive forms of genetic modification.
Today, genetically modified foods are common in the diets of both humans and animals. Some of the ways in which GM technology is used in yellow biotechnology include the development of cultured (“lab-grown”) meat products and plant crops that are resistant to insects, pollution, and environmental changes. These genetically modified foods are meant to be more sustainable, requiring fewer resources and resulting in less waste.
There is some overlap between green and yellow biotechnology, since human and animal food supplies come from agriculture—whether directly, in the form of fresh produce and meat production, or indirectly, as the ingredients used in processed foods. It’s true that efforts like the production of genetically modified crops, for example, pertain to both green and yellow biotechnology.
However, not all agricultural biotechnology work focuses on food production, and not all food production biotechnology work pertains directly to farming. For example, food processing methods like the fermentation of cheese and alcoholic beverages also fit under the category of yellow biotechnology.
Grey Biotechnology: Bioremediation and Environmental Improvement Using Living Organisms
Another area that has significant overlap with green biotechnology is grey biotechnology. These branches of biotechnology both focus strongly on the natural environment, but the environmental biotechnology focus of this branch of biotechnology emphasizes pollution prevention and remediation instead of agriculture. In other words, if you’re passionate about saving the planet, it’s likely that grey biotechnology is the field that’s closer to your interests.
In grey biotechnology, scientists use living microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, and algae to remediate pollution and preserve the environment. For example, certain species of bacteria and fungi can digest or degrade particular types of plastics. These microorganisms can clean up pollution on land, in the water, and even in the air. Additionally, they can be used in waste management to reduce the environmental footprint of humans’ trash.
Other applications of grey biotechnology include preventing the pollution of plants and animals and preserving biodiversity in the environment. This application of the field may include tracking populations of endangered species of plants or animals, manipulating nature, or even preserving these species through cloning.
Some of the ways in which grey biotechnology professionals may manipulate the environment for the purpose of protecting biodiversity include introducing or creating control agents like predators, enemies, or chemicals (such as pesticides and herbicides) that would reduce one population in favor of allowing another one to flourish.
Brown Biotechnology: Desert Biotechnology
Some environments are so unique that they warrant their own particular branch of biotechnology. Deserts, for example, are notoriously difficult environments in which to grow plants like food crops, yet the people and animals living in these areas need nourishment.
The goal of desert biotechnology is to facilitate the growth of food crops and other plants in desert areas. Some methods used in brown biotechnology involve treating the types of soil found in desert environments to improve their ability to grow crops. Other methods include developing genetically modified plants that can grow in this tough climate.
Gold Biotechnology: Bioinformatics, Nanobiotechnology and Computer Science Biotechnology
The field of gold biotechnology brings together biology and computer science. Due to its importance in the rapid organization and analysis of data, this area may also be referred to as conceptualizing biology.
How directly computers are involved in research and application depends on the subfield of gold biotechnology you’re pursuing. The area of bioinformatics refers to the use of computer software programs to analyze biological data, often in massive amounts.
The second subfield of gold biotechnology is computational biology, which involves the development of models scientists and engineers can use to study biological processes and systems. These models are created out of computational techniques and methods ranging from basic algorithms to machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).
Gold biotechnology isn’t inherently removed from hands-on work in the field. This branch of biotechnology also includes the area of nanobiotechnology. This subfield refers to the use and application of devices and materials at a nanoscale—the tiny scale of less than 100 nanometers, which includes the atomic, molecular, and macromolecular levels of biological organisms—to biological processes and systems or biological purposes.
Examples of nanobiotechnology research and development include the use of ribonucleic acid (RNA) and injectable nanoparticles for medical biotechnology purposes.
Violet Biotechnology: Legal, Ethical and Philosophical Issues in Biotechnology
Of course, the goal of biotechnology is to improve life—for humans, animals, plants, and the environment as a whole. Yet biotechnology products and applications raise some significant legal, ethical, and moral questions and dilemmas. Violet biotechnology is the branch that focuses on these issues.
Dark Biotechnology: Biological Weapons and Warfare
Although an area called dark biotechnology technically exists, it’s generally not part of the scientific study and product development in which the scientific community is involved. Dark biotechnology products—like synthetic or genetically engineered pathogens and toxins—would encompass bioterrorism and biowarfare, not respectable scientific endeavors.
That said, it is possible to find work in which you might undertake the research and development of defensive measures against biological weapons. For example, researchers might try to create antidotes to biological toxins like nerve gas, treatments and vaccines for weaponized viruses, or systems that would serve to detect and identify acts of biological warfare.
What Is the Best Branch of Biotechnology?
All branches of biotechnology (with the exception of dark biotechnology, which isn’t generally practiced in the scientific community) aim to improve human life in some capacity, so each of these areas is rewarding in the sense of making a difference.
Each of the four main fields of biotechnology research and applications—medical, agriculture, marine, and industrial—tend to be strong candidates for the distinction of being the best branch of biotechnology. Earning potential and job outlook in each of these areas are favorable. Medical biotechnology tends to garner the most attention and publicity, and for many scientists and engineers, the opportunity to help treat and even prevent diseases is especially fulfilling.
However, all biotechnology disciplines are important in their own ways. Advances in environmentally-conscious agricultural processes help make food more accessible to those suffering from food insecurity while also lessening the negative impact of agricultural efforts on the environment. The marine resources acquired through work in marine biotechnology influence the materials available for applications in both medicine and food production, as well as other applications. Likewise, work in industrial biotechnology can improve chemical production and manufacturing as it pertains to all areas of biotechnology applications.
Some fields of biotechnology are more hands-on than others, which is another factor to consider when identifying the right career for you. For example, if you prefer doing hands-on work in your research, you might find the legal and philosophical focus of violet biotechnology somewhat boring, even though this work is important to the field of biotechnology as a whole.
Ultimately, choosing a career in biotechnology requires you to look inward, not just outward, and think not only about job growth and salary potential but also about what types of problems you’re most passionate about solving.
Earning a Degree for a Biotechnology Career
A degree in biotechnology specifically, or in biological sciences or engineering, can help prepare students for careers in various fields in biotechnology. Biology degree programs emphasize the theoretical knowledge of biological sciences, while engineering degree programs focus on the application of scientific principles through engineering design.
There are numerous types of engineering degrees to consider. Bioengineering and biomedical engineering programs may be the kinds of engineering degrees most closely related to this field, but other disciplines, like chemical engineering and electrical and computer engineering, could also prepare you to work in this field.
You might choose a more specialized major based on which branches of biotechnology interest you the most. For example, if you want to work in blue biotechnology, you might prefer to major in marine biology, while students interested in human health biotechnology might gravitate toward a healthcare-related program.
If you’re eyeing a career in biotechnology, one thing that’s for sure is that you will need a strong background in biological sciences. Regardless of which specific major you pursue, you should take classes in molecular biology, genetics, and biochemistry.