What is Biotechnology?

What is Biotechnology?

Biotechnology is a broad term for a group of technologies based on the application of biological processes. It is used to make or modify foodstuffs and medicines, reduce wastes and environmental impacts and create renewable energy sources.

Modern biotechnology is the term used to describe a range of processes and techniques especially at the molecular level.

Examples of biotechnology applications of particular interest to the department include cell culture, genomics, molecular marker-assisted breeding, cloning, bioprocessing and diagnostic testing as well as gene technology (genetic modification).


Genomics involves the large scale discovery of genes. It involves study of the total hereditary material of a cell in an animal or plant, including gene placement along a strand of DNA and function of a particular gene or set of genes. Modern genomics equipment enables scientists to locate the relative position and function of animal and plant genes on a strand of DNA faster than ever before. Once the position and function of a gene is known, it may be useful in molecular marking, genetic modification or cloning research to benefit agriculture, particularly if it is a gene with recognised economic importance.

Molecular markers

Molecular markers are pieces of DNA that are easily detectable and located near genes of interest. Molecular markers are particularly useful in breeding programs because scientists and breeders can screen for a DNA marker instead of waiting for the gene to be expressed. (i.e. become apparent) in a plant or animal. Molecular markers can also be used to make DNA fingerprints of animals and plants. The DNA fingerprints can be used as a database to help with the rapid identification of plants. Selection of an animal or plant for breeding using a knowledge of its DNA profile is an important application of biotechnology.


Refers to the production of genetically identical organisms. Cloning occurs naturally in some instances, for example when a new plant is formed from a cutting or when humans produce identical twins. Usually however, no two organisms are identical, even if they belong to the same species. Cloning is not genetic modification as genes are not modified but copied exactly. Genes, cells or entire organisms can be cloned using modern biotechnology methods.

Genetic modification

This involves the deliberate modification of an organism’s genetic material by moving, introducing or eliminating specific genes. For example, scientists can now take a single gene from a plant or animal cell and insert it into another plant or animal cell to give the second cell a desired characteristic, such as the ability for a plant to withstand certain herbicides.

The terms ‘gene technology’, ‘genetic engineering’ and ‘genetic manipulation’, ‘genetic enhancement’, ‘gene splicing’, ‘transgenics’ or the use of ‘recombinant DNA’ are terms used to describe genetic modification processes. They all refer to one application of biotechnology. Genes can be found in and moved between different plants, animals or micro-organisms such as viruses or bacteria. Genes can also be altered within a specific plant, animal or micro-organism. For example, an undesirable characteristic such as susceptibility to a particular disease can be ‘switched off’ or modified in some way to benefit the plant or animal. It is this application of biotechnology that is regulated under the Gene Technology Regulatory Scheme, in recognition of the need to advance with caution with this powerful technology.

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