Biotech for Dummies: A Layperson’s Guidebook
Check back often! The Biotech Dictionary is always being updated!
Biotech sounds complicated — and that’s because it is. But don’t fret, we’re here to simplify it. At the most basic level, biotechnology utilizes naturally occurring, biological processes and phenomena to serve the ever-complicating needs of a growing human population. You may know that yeast (a type of fungus), have been used for thousands of years to leaven bread and ferment brews — what you probably didn’t know is that those processes are some of the earliest examples of biotechnology. From sourdough to Stella Artois, and from kombucha to CRISPR, biotech is making an appearance in more and more aspects of your everyday life. Let’s dive in and explore some biotech buzzwords, so you too can sound cool at your alma mater’s next tailgate!
Biophotonics — The intersection of the biological life sciences and photonics, or technological processes that involve photons, the smallest units of light. The field of biophotonics seeks to utilize light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation to explore cells and their structures in meticulous detail. Beams of photons (light) have been used to manipulate subcellular structures while avoiding material damages, helping researchers to understand new things about how diseases develop and how they might be cured. Diseases being researched include some cancers, macular degeneration, Alzheimer’s, and numerous neurochemical/psychological conditions. Researchers hope that further studies in biophotonics will reveal useful applications for medicine, the environment, and life sciences.¹
Custom Implants — Researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia have begun using specialized image scans, 3D printers and robotic surgery arms to create custom implants for cancer patients with bone tumors. The promising research could lead to higher success rates for limb saving operations, increasing quality of life for patients and making the cancers themselves less daunting.² Here’s a cool video on the process from Insider Science:
Drug Delivery — Innovations in the drug delivery space center around targeting pharmaceutical drugs towards people with specific or rare genetic profiles. These innovations aim to make drugs more effective for persons with certain pharmacokinetic profiles — a fancy word for the way different people’s bodies can metabolize the same drugs in different ways (due to age, genetic predisposition, biological sex, etc.) New developments in drug delivery could see increased success rates among organ transplants, lower system toxicity byproducts of some chemotherapy drugs, increased vaccine efficacy, and even the increased prevalence of needle-free treatments! This is not an exhaustive list but the possibilities for improving the everyday lives of people around the world via drug delivery are sky-high!³
Epigenetics — In school, you were most likely taught that a DNA sequence was the end all to be all of what made up an organism. This sequence of nucleotides instructs your body on how to build itself, like a microscopic instruction sheet that determines everything from the color of your hair, to which diseases you might be predisposed to. Well the ball doesn’t stop at the base pairs. Epigenetics are chemical modifications to your genome that don’t change the DNA itself, but affect how the DNA is expressed. “Epi-” translates to ‘above’ in Greek — epigenetic modifications come in the form of chemical markers that sit attached to or above DNA, instructing genes to turn on or off. While your DNA is pretty set in stone and won’t be changing anytime soon, epigenetics allow gene expression to be controlled by environmental influences, such as diet, pollution and stress. By combining biotech with epigenetics research, scientists hope to understand more about gene function and how certain previously misunderstood diseases can be explained by epigenetic mishaps.⁴
Impossible Burger — You might know by now that there are a few reasons why people avoid eating beef. For one, beef production is more carbon and water intensive than almost any other food. Producing just one pound of beef can require up to 1,800 gallons of water. Additionally, methane released from cattle accounts for ~10% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Enter, Impossible burger. The Silicon Valley company is using biotech to produce plant-based meat products that are virtually indistinguishable from the ‘real’ thing. Among other things, Impossible has genetically engineered yeast to mass produce soy leghemoglobin — a naturally occurring molecule similar to the heme molecule in beef that gives it its characteristic blood red color and familiar meaty taste. At the intersection of biotechnology and food production, Impossible may have developed a product that can help mitigate the impending threat of climate change. Get a taste of the innovative Impossible Burger in the video below.⁵
Neural Networks — You may have heard the analogy that a brain is like a supercomputer. Well, some researchers are taking that adage to heart. Neural networks are systems of algorithms that aim to replicate and magnify the analytical capabilities of the human brain. A subset of deep learning technology, neural networks seek to recognize patterns in data sets to form complex extrapolations that may be otherwise invisible to human researchers. Neural networks can ‘teach’ computers to execute specific tasks by analyzing certain pieces of data. Neural networks are being used to for data de-noising, facial recognition, and in the computational sensing units of autonomous vehicles. In the field of biotechnology specifically, neural networks are being used to analyze vast amounts of data on diseases like cancer — highlighting patterns that could lead to the development of better diagnostics, more effective treatments and potentially, cures.⁶
Vertical Farming — With the world population projected to hit 10 billion by 2050, scientists are thinking of new and innovative ways to feed all of those hungry mouths. Vertical farming uses significantly less space and water than traditional farming, requires little to no pesticides and can occur all year round. The farms use up to 95% less water than traditional farms and are able to grow an estimated 4 to 6 acres of vegetation for every 1 acre cultivated on traditional farmland. Investment in the space is also heating up as high profile vertical farming startups like Plenty have raised hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital. If eating insects (video) isn’t your thing, then non-horizontal agriculture (see what I did there?) might be something you want to check out.⁷
Check back often! The Biotech Dictionary is always being updated!
 Kurt Benke & Bruce Tomkins (2017) Future food-production systems: vertical
farming and controlled-environment agriculture, Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy, 13:1,
13–26, DOI: 10.1080/15487733.2017.1394054