What is biotechnology?
Biotechnology," or "biotech" for short, refers to the use of biological processes to either make products or solve human problems. Biotech processes have been used for thousands of years, yet the industry we know today is scarcely more than a quarter century old. Bread, cheese and beer - all products made from microorganisms - have been part of the human diet for 6,000 years. But it was not until the 1970s that scientists began to apply components of these microorganisms at the molecular level to solve human problems in a variety of spheres, including medicine, agriculture and industry. Due to this breadth of applications, the term "biotechnology" gradually gave way to the more accurate "biotechnologies" or a collection of techniques that apply cellular and molecular characteristics and processes to solve human problems.
How does biotechnology work?
Biotech products are based on two basic phenomena: first, that nearly all living forms are similar at the cellular and molecular level, and second, that cells and molecules have very specific functions and tasks. The basic genetic material DNA, (deoxyribonucleic acid), which provides the instructions cells need to replicate and perform cellular tasks, and proteins, which provide the building blocks for performing the cell's tasks, are the two fundamental components of biotechnology products. Because these instructions are the same across all cells, technologies based on DNA can be applied across all cell types. And because cells and molecules have specific tasks, specific products can be developed for these tasks, often with more reliability and predictability than conventional pharmaceutical products.
What do we know about biotechnology?
The biotechnology industry tripled in the 1990s and had a May 2002 market capitalization of $224 billion. In 2002, a total of 1,466 companies employed over 142,900 people in the U.S. alone. Of those companies, 318 are publicly held. Over 325 million people have benefited from the more than 130 FDA-approved drugs and vaccines produced by the industry. Over two-thirds of these drugs were approved in the last six years. A research-driven industry, U.S. biotech companies spent $16.3 billion on research and development (R&D) in 2002, with the top 5 spending an average of $89,400 per employee in 2000. The scale of this effort has produced over 350 products and vaccines in clinical trials, which target over 200 diseases, including cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and AIDS.
The industry's productivity reaches across several industrial sectors. Biotech companies have produced hundreds on medical diagnostic tests, including tests to detect the AIDS virus and home pregnancy tests. In agriculture, the industry has made more widely available foods such as papaya and soybeans and has produced hundreds of biopesticides and other agricultural compounds. Biotech products are also helping clean up the environment of hazardous waste and rendering industrial processes (e.g., chemicals, paper, textiles, etc.) cleaner and more energy efficient. Finally, the exciting new technique of DNA fingerprinting is making significant contributions in law enforcement and forensic science, in addition to anthropology and wildlife management.