What is Biotech? – Discovering Biology in a Digital World

The biotechnology (biotech) industry is incredibly diverse. Recently, I wrote about the size of the biotech industry, which is, of course, related to how biotechnology is defined. As a strict definition, biotechnology is the use of biology to turn raw materials into useful products. However, the act of developing a biotech product requires many enabling technologies, reagents, and services that form today’s modern industry.

The term biotechnology was first coined in 1919 by Károly Ereky, a Hungarian agricultural engineer, who foresaw a time when biology could be used for turning raw material into useful products. The emerging field of synthetic biology represents the natural progression of this idea as our ability to synthesize gene sequences and engineer biochemical pathways and even entire microorganisms in rational designs for a myriad of purposes from speciality chemicals, to food, to energy improves.

While biotechnology products such as bread, wine, and beer, have been around for millennia, the earliest biotechnology companies, as exemplified by Genentech, were founded in the late 1970s after the initial discoveries of restriction enzymes and the realization they could be harnessed for use in DNA cloning. Many of these companies focused on producing human therapeutic proteins, like human insulin, in cost-effective ways. To carry out this work, these companies also needed reagents such as restriction enzymes that were in themselves biotech products. Hence, an ecosystem of companies developed into a larger industry.

That industry today is diverse and includes companies with therapeutic missions; technology focused companies that provide analytical instrumentation, systems for automation, reagents for assays and production; companies that focus on diagnostics for determining appropriate therapeutic and medical interventions; service organizations that specialize in using advanced technology as well as providing clinical trial, regulatory, and…

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