At its simplest, biotechnology is technology based on biology. From that perspective, the use of biological processes is hardly noteworthy. We began growing crops and raising animals 10,000 years ago to provide a stable supply of food and clothing. We have used the biological processes of microorganisms for 6,000 years to make useful food products, such as bread and cheese, and to preserve dairy products.
Crops? Cheese? That doesn’t sound very exciting. So why does biotechnology receive so much attention?
The answer is that in the last 40 years we’ve gone from practicing biotechnology at a macro level—breeding animals and crops, for example—to working with it at a micro level. It was during the 1960s and ’70s that our understanding of biology reached a point where we could begin to use the smallest parts of organisms—the biological molecules of which they are composed—in addition to using whole organisms.
An appropriate modern definition of biotechnology would be “the use of cellular and biomolecular processes to solve problems or make useful products.” We can get a better handle on the meaning of the word biotechnology by thinking of it in its plural form, biotechnologies. That’s because biotechnology is a collection of technologies that capitalize on the attributes of cells, such as their manufacturing capabilities, and put biological molecules, such as DNA and proteins, to work for us.