Do you know the history and branches of biotechnology?

Q: What is biotechnology?

A: Check dictionaries and technical references, and you find various definitions of the term. A general explanation of biotechnology is the use of living organisms and systems to make products and processes useful to humankind.

Q: When was biotechnology first used?

A: Humans have used biotechnology for thousands of years: to breed and domesticate beneficial plants and animals, produce food (cheese, bread, yogurt, vinegar, beer, wine), and treat disease (using molds to treat wounds). Modern biotechnology is considered to have launched in the 1970s with the advent of genetic engineering capabilities.

Q: Where does the “technology” piece come into play?

A: Biotechnology is grounded in biology, but in modern times it also involves engineering, chemistry, bioinformatics, data science, advanced manufacturing, and other important science and technology fields.

Q: How is biotechnology used today?

A: Medical uses of biotechnology may come to mind first for most people. But today, biotechnology is also giving us biofuels, biologically-produced chemicals to replace petroleum-based chemicals, plastic-eating microbes, biologically produced medicines, biofabrics, and much more.

Q: Are there branches of biotechnology associated with specific ecosystems or the business of biotech?

A: Yes! The biotech family tree includes a wide range of applications, from medicine to deserts, bioinformatics to law, and more.

Q: How can we keep it all straight?

A: As biotechnology innovations continue their fast-paced emergence, some of the lesser-known application areas will likely become more widely recognized. One way to organize and easily reference the major branches is using the color-coding approach described by Kafarski:

RedMedical, human health
YellowFood, nutrition
BrownDeserts, arid regions
Violet/purpleInventions, patents, law, ethics
GoldBioinformatics, data science
DarkBiological weapons, bioterrorism


Obviously, some of these areas overlap each other, such as green (agricultural) and yellow (food/nutrition) biotechnologies. There will undoubtedly be more overlap as new biotech applications are developed, and maybe more colors to add.