Overview of Biotechnology: Ethical and Social Considerations:
What is Biotechnology? Medical Privacy Stem Cell Research
A Long History Cloning Animal Welfare
The Science Behind Biotechnology Religion
The Current State of Biotechnology
Applications of Biotechnology: Thinking Critically
Pharmaceuticals Additional Resources:
A Glossary of Terms
Related Issues: Relevant Links
Food Safety and Environmental Considerations
Legal and Market Issues
OVERVIEW OF BIOTECHNOLOGY
What is Biotechnology?
Simply put, biotechnology is the use of biological processes to solve problems and to make useful products.
It might surprise you to learn that biotechnology is hardly a new concept, as, for example, humans began
using biological processes to grow crops and breed animals 10,000 years ago. So why is biotechnology such a
hot topic in newsrooms and classrooms around the world?
The answer is that by the 1960s and ’70s our knowledge about basic biological concepts had increased to the
point where, in addition to using whole organisms, we could use their smallest parts: DNA. Along with this
new understanding of biology came the development of several new technologies, and all those technologies
capitalize on the characteristics of cells, putting them to work for us.
Such developments have led to a new era of biotechnology and to a more precise definition: “the commercial
application of living organisms or their products, which involves the deliberate manipulation of their DNA.”
A Long History
Humankind’s earliest uses of biotechnology include planting crops and breeding animals. The discovery that
fruit juices fermented into wine and the discovery that milk could be turned into cheese spawned the study
of biotechnology. Other early uses of biotechnology include making beer from fermenting malt and hops,
using yeast cells to make bread rise and selectively breeding animals.
After that initial period of biotechnology, humans began to learn more about the functions and makeup
of organisms, an increase in understanding that led directly to the development of technologies enabling
control of the many functions of cells and organisms. Those technologies include gene splicing and
recombinant DNA technology, and through them we now are able to combine the genetic characteristics of
two or more living cells.
The long history of biotechnology includes many exciting discoveries. The following timeline outlines just
some of the numerous milestones in the field of biotechnology:
B.C.E. (Before Common Era)
8000 Humans domesticate crops and livestock.
4000–2000 Biotechnology first is used to leaven bread and to ferment beer, using yeast.
C.E. (Common Era)
100 First insecticide is developed.
1761 Joseph Koelreuter reports successful crossbreeding of crop plants in different species.
1830 Proteins are discovered.
1865 Science of genetics begins when Austrian monk Gregor Mendel studies garden peas and
discovers genetic traits are passed from parents to offspring in a predictable fashion.
1919 Biotechnology first is used in print.
1944 DNA is proven to carry genetic information.
1953 Scientific journal Nature publishes James Watson and Francis Crick’s manuscript describing
the double-helical structure of DNA, which marks the beginning of the modern era of
1975 United States government first is urged to develop guidelines for regulating experiments in
1981 Scientists at Ohio University produce the first transgenic animals by transferring genes from
other animals into mice.
1982 First biotech drug — human insulin produced in genetically modified bacteria — is
approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
1983 Polymerase chain reaction technique is conceived. PCR, which uses heat and enzymes to
make unlimited copies of genes and gene fragments, later becomes a major tool in
biotechnology research and product development worldwide.
1984 DNA fingerprinting technique is developed.
1989 Plant Genome Project begins.
1990 Human Genome Project, an international effort to map all the
genes in the human body, is launched.
First experimental gene therapy treatment is performed successfully,
on a 4-year-old girl suffering from an immune disorder.
First transgenic dairy cow used to produce human milk proteins
for infant formula is created.
1994 First whole food produced through biotechnology, the Flavr Savr
tomato, is approved by the FDA.
1997 First animal is cloned from an adult cell (a sheep named Dolly, in
First weed- and insect-resistant biotech crops are commercialized.
Group of Oregon researchers claims to have cloned two Rhesus
monkeys. COURTESY ROSLIN INSTITUTE
2000 First complete map of a plant genome is developed. Dolly, the first-ever cloned
“Golden rice” announcement allows the technology to be available animal, with her first-born
to developing countries in hopes of improving the health of
undernourished people and preventing some forms of blindness.
2002 Draft version of the complete map of the human genome is published.
Biotech crops are grown on 145 million acres in 16 countries.
2003 GloFish, the first biotech pet, hits the North American market. The fish is bred specially to
be able to detect water pollutants and glows red under black light because of the addition
of a natural fluorescence gene.
Dolly, the cloned sheep that made headlines in 1997, is euthanized after developing
progressive lung disease.
The Science Behind Biotechnology
All biotechnology is based on the science, or biological functioning, of organisms.
Organisms are composed of cells that contain DNA in their chromosomes.
The structure of DNA molecules holds information that is used by cells as a
formula for the organism, determining the characteristics of an organism.
That information is encoded on the DNA’s genes, which are derived from
a four-letter alphabet (A, C, G and T) and usually contain between 1,000
and 100,000 letters. The entire makeup of an organism’s genes is called
the genome and can contain between four million letters (for a simple
bacteria) and three billion letters or more (for a human being).
An illustration of the basic structure of DNA.
DNA is the same chemically and physically for all organisms. This fact made possible perhaps the greatest
scientific discovery in the field of biotechnology: learning that DNA from any organism will function if it is
transferred into another organism.
Combining DNA from different organisms in the same species results in modified organisms with a
combination of the parents’ traits. This sharing has been used since prehistoric times and occurs naturally
through sexual reproduction. However, this type of DNA combination based on sexual reproduction can
occur only between individuals of the same species. A Holstein cow can be mated with a Hereford bull
because the two animals are different breeds of the same species: cattle.
Modern biotechnology in use today is based on the science of genetic engineering. Under the umbrella of
genetic engineering exists other technologies, such as transgenics, cloning and many others.
Transgenics (also known as recombinant DNA) is the transfer of a specific gene from one organism to another.
Gene splicing is used to introduce one or more genes of an organism into a second organism, and a transgenic
organism is created once the second organism incorporates the new DNA into its own genetic material.
In gene splicing, DNA cannot be transferred directly from its original organism (the donor) to the recipient
organism (the host). Instead, the donor DNA must be cut and pasted, or recombined, into a compatible
fragment of DNA from a vector — an organism that can carry the donor DNA into the host. The host
organism often is a rapidly multiplying microorganism, such as a harmless bacterium, which serves as
a factory where the recombined DNA can be duplicated in large quantities. The subsequently produced
protein then can be removed from the host and used as a genetically engineered product in humans, other
animals, plants, bacteria and viruses. The donor DNA can be introduced directly into an organism by
techniques such as injection through the cell walls of plants or into a fertilized egg.
This transferring of genes alters the characteristics of the organism by changing its protein makeup.
Proteins, including enzymes and hormones, perform many vital functions in organisms. Individual genes
direct an organism’s characteristics through the production of proteins.
Scientists use somatic cell nuclear transfer, or cloning, to produce multiple copies of an organism. Gene
cloning enables the replication of plasmids inside a bacterial host. The process can be used, for example, to
create millions of cells encoded for insulin production. Animal clones also are being produced to improve
livestock, to save endangered species and to serve as a research tool for many human diseases.
In addition to the use of transgenics and cloning, scientists can use gene knock out technology to inactivate,
or “knock out,” a specific gene. It is this technology that creates a possible source of replacement organs for
The Current State of Biotechnology
Many people are unaware of just how much their day-to-day lives are impacted by biotechnology and its
products. The following facts and figures should help to put the size of this industry into perspective:
• More than 300 biotechnology drugs and vaccines currently are in clinical trials. The drugs and vaccines
target more than 200 diseases, including various cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, diabetes,
multiple sclerosis, AIDS and arthritis.
• Many biotechnology products already are on the market and in use by individuals across the nation
and world. One of the many medical diagnostic tests developed through biotechnology is the home-
pregnancy test. Biotechnology foods available include papaya, soybeans and corn. Other products in use
include biopesticides, which reduce our dependence on traditional chemical pesticides.
• Other biotechnology applications in use today include pollution-eating microbes for the cleanup of
hazardous wastes, laundry detergents with biotechnology-based enzymes and DNA fingerprinting.
In the United States, the fast-growing biotechnology industry is made up of about 1,470 companies and
employs almost 200,000 people (as of 2004). In April 2005, the industry’s market capitalization (the total
value of U.S. publicly traded biotech companies at market prices) was $311 billion, and as one of the most
research-intensive industries in existence, the U.S. biotech industry spent $17.9 billion on research and
development in 2003.
APPLICATIONS OF BIOTECHNOLOGY
Biotechnology currently is being used in many areas, but the three main applications of biotechnology are
agriculture, pharmaceuticals and industry.
Humans’ demand for food, shelter, clothing and fuel — all supplied from plants and animals — is growing
rapidly and concurrently with the world’s population. Biotechnology is being used to meet this ever-
increasing need by improving yields, decreasing crop inputs such as water and fertilizer and providing pest
control methods that are less destructive to the environment.
Long before humans understood the science of genetics, farmers used biotechnology to obtain
domesticated crops through the selective breeding of wild plants. Farmers relied for centuries on traditional
crossbreeding to improve the yield and quality of food and to provide crops with built-in protection against
insect pests, disease-causing organisms and harsh environmental conditions. As our knowledge of plant
genetics improved, we crossbred plants with desirable traits (or plants lacking undesirable characteristics) to
produce offspring with the best traits of both parents. Now, virtually every crop plant grown commercially
for food or for fiber is a product of crossbreeding. Unfortunately, these processes often are costly, time-
consuming and inefficient.
The new tools of biotechnology allow plant breeders to select single genes
that produce desired traits and move them from any organism to another.
This has opened up a world of genetic traits to benefit food production.
We can, for example, take a bacterial gene that yields a protein toxic to
an insect pest (but not people) and transfer it to a plant. The plant then
produces the protein and is protected from the insect without the help of
externally applied chemical pesticides.
Another agricultural application is the fast-developing field of biofuels
— fuels such as methane produced from renewable resources, especially
treated municipal and industrial wastes and plant biomass. Biotechnology
currently is being used to make ethanol more energy-efficient to produce
and to adopt environmentally friendly growing techniques known as COURTESY USDA / JACK DYKINGA
conservation tillage. Future expected advances in this area include the A sample of genetically engineered
barley carrying a gene that could help it
production of clean-burning fuel from organic refuse, which could decrease resist an attack by a specific virus.
U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Similar to our increasing demand for food production is the increasing demand for wood products. Wood
provides us with fuel, construction materials and paper, and its supplies are decreasing fast. Biotechnology
is being used to create disease- and insect-resistant trees and to increase their growth rates. Scientists also
are learning how to use biotechnology to improve the efficiency with which trees convert solar energy into
plant material and to move more of that energy into wood production and away from pollen, flowers and
seeds. All these methods of increasing productivity should decrease the need for wood from natural forests.
Perhaps a more important economic role for biotechnology in the forest industry will be its changing of
the way we convert trees into useful products. Extensive research is being conducted to increase a tree’s
cellulose, the raw material for paper-making, while decreasing the amount of lignin, a molecule that must
be removed in papermaking. Removing lignin from trees has required harsh chemicals and high energy
cost, so changing the cellulose-to-lignin ratio genetically will have important environmental benefits. And
because trees absorb carbon dioxide, any advance that allows us to increase tree yields without cutting down
forest could have significant positive effects on global warming.
Another major use of biotechnology within the realm of agriculture involves animals, as biotechnology is
improving animal health and is increasing livestock and poultry productivity. These improvements come
from the enhanced ability to detect, treat and prevent diseases and other problems; from better feed derived
from transgenic crops; and from improved animal breeding. Besides farm animals, biotechnology is being
used to develop preventive medicines and disease treatments to help companion animals, or pets, live longer
and healthier lives.
Transgenic animals such as cows, sheep and goats are being genetically modified to produce human proteins
in their milk. These therapeutic proteins can be used to nourish premature infants or to treat a number of
human diseases. Transgenic pigs are being developed for use as organ donors through xenotransplantation.
Other uses of animal biotechnology include dramatic improvements in the animal products humans
consume. Transgenic cows, pigs and lambs have been genetically modified to have reduced fat and increased
lean muscle, resulting in healthier meat products.
Reproductive and cloning technologies, both tools of biotechnology, are being used to save endangered
animals. What’s more, several crops improved with biotechnology are helping to decrease farm animal
manure production and phosphorus and nitrogen excretion, which contributes to ground water pollution.
New biotechnology tools in this application of biotechnology have enabled faster, more accurate and
cheaper detection of many diseases. For example, tests for strep throat and many other infectious diseases
provide results in minutes, enabling treatment to begin immediately — something that sits in sharp contrast
to the two- or three-day delay of previous tests.
The same tools also have enabled better treatment of many diseases. Biotechnology therapeutics approved
by the FDA all are derived from biological substances and processes designed by nature. Some use the
human body’s own tools for fighting infections and correcting problems, while others are natural products
of plants and animals.
The newest application of biotechnology is in industry, where it has chemical and environmental uses.
Biotechnology in the chemical industry uses the modern techniques of molecular biology to reduce the
environmental impact of manufacturing. Industrial biotechnology also works to make manufacturing
processes more efficient for industries such as textiles, paper and pulp and specialty chemicals. Some
observers predict biotechnology will transform the chemical manufacturing sector in much the same way it
has changed the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors.
The many uses of modern biotechnology are coupled with uncertain consequences. Those uncertainties
have sparked much debate and discussion among scientists, policy-makers, educators, the media and the
general public about the potential implications and issues arising from the science, and all that debate
focuses on assessing the potential benefits, risks and harms.
Food Safety and Environmental Considerations
The main question people have about genetically modified foods, crops, and organisms is, “Are they safe?”
Are genetically modified foods safe to eat? Are genetically modified foods and organisms safe for the
environment? As with any new product, no studies of the long-term effects on human health have been
One specific worry many people harbor about genetically modified foods is that the added genes could
produce toxins that are allergy-causing substances because proteins are added in the production process of
the foods. This is a valid concern — and a difficult one to alleviate, because allergies only can be detected
once a person is exposed and experiences a reaction.
Another issue surrounding genetically modified foods is the question of whether to label them. Both
proponents and opponents exist on this issue, but currently there are no mandatory labeling laws.
A main concern related to genetically modified crops and organisms is the potential for harmful
environmental impacts. One example of environmental concerns is the growth of biotechnology crops
that are more tolerant to drought or poor soils, which encourages farmers to encroach on lands not suited
to agriculture — thereby causing environmental damage. In addition, some herbicide-tolerant plants
might transfer their tolerance to related plants, creating superweeds that are not controlled easily by
environmentally friendly herbicides and increasing the use of more
toxic herbicides. Finally, there is concern that some genetically
modified plants might be unstable in the long term because their
gene combinations might be more susceptible to sudden changes.
The agencies primarily responsible for regulating biotechnology
in the United States are the Department of Agriculture (USDA),
the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the FDA. COURTESY USDA / JACK DYKINGA
Biotechnology products are regulated according to their intended Researchers in Washington state inspect healthy
use, with some products being regulated by more than one agency. wheat thriving in a field infected by a fungus.
For example, a food crop genetically engineered to have viral
resistance would be regulated by all three agencies to ensure the product is safe to grow (USDA), safe for the
environment (EPA) and safe to eat (FDA).
The USDA oversees the regulation of plant pests, plants and veterinary biologics. The EPA regulates
microbial/plant pesticides, new uses of existing pesticides and novel microorganisms. The FDA controls
food, feed, food additives, veterinary drugs, human drugs and medical devices.
Legal and Market Issues
The commercial production of biotechnology products raises many questions, legal and otherwise. For
example, “What property rights, if any, should be attached to genes, gene sequences and their products?”
And, “Should genetic information and any commercial benefits resulting from its use be shared?”
In addition, many public policy issues are suggested through the field of biotechnology. Lawmakers are
discussing what policy measures should be developed to balance societal concerns with commercial
interests. Also, there is concern over how best to ensure fair and equitable access to genetic testing, gene
therapy and other beneficial technologies.
The commercialization of biotechnology agricultural products has the potential to squeeze smaller farmers
out of the market. There is some concern farmers will be linked to large companies selling patented seed and
associated chemicals at greater cost. For all biotechnology products, there is legitimate concern that large
companies increasingly will own intellectual property and dominate their respective markets. All this has
the potential to translate to higher prices for consumers.
ETHICAL AND SOCIAL CONSIDERATIONS
Modern biotechnology raises many ethical questions about its function and use. As with any new
technology, past experiences and current norms typically are insufficient to guide solutions to the
questions raised. Ethics provides a foundation for the in-depth conversations related to all applications of
Many people hold fundamental beliefs about the benefit, or inherit ill, of biotechnology. For example, those
in support of biotechnology consider genetic engineering (the basic science of biotechnology) as simply
another step along the path of genetic improvement, which began with people selectively breeding plants
and animals for desirable characteristics thousands of years ago. In other words, biotechnology is a natural
progression of science and technology. Those opposed to biotechnology believe genetic engineering is
quite different from historical genetic modification techniques that involve breeding within a species. They
consider it unnatural.
In addition to these basic beliefs about biotechnology, specific areas and themes within the science spark debate.
A major ethical concern regarding the use of biotechnology
is the protection of patient’s medical privacy. Patients
want to be assured that all individually identifiable
medical information, including information derived from
genetic tests, will be respected, treated confidentially and
safeguarded from discriminatory misuse. Many individuals
would like to see legislation enacted that prohibits insurers
from denying individuals insurance based on their genetic
information. People want the option of using diagnostic tests
that can help them recognize early warning signs of disease.
This option could be jeopardized if genetic information were
used to discriminate. This protection must be balanced, The protection of patients’ confidential medical records is
one of the most important ethical concerns surrounding the
however, with the need to continue valuable medical use of biotechnology.
research into new diagnostic tests, therapies and cures.
Human reproductive cloning — using somatic cell nuclear transfer followed by implantation into a
surrogate mother to create human beings — currently is under a voluntary moratorium by the academic
and industrial research communities. Many view this use of cloning as too dangerous and riddled with too
many moral, ethical and safety concerns.
A related type of cloning — therapeutic cloning — also involves somatic cell nuclear transfer. In this
process, however, the undifferentiated stem cells are removed from the inner layer of the blastocyst and
placed into cell culture. The resulting cell line is genetically identical to the somatic cell from which the
nucleus was removed. These cells offer the potential to develop into new tissues that could replace diseased
tissues and cure diseases. Many individuals support this type of cloning while still opposing human
Religion plays a crucial part in the way some people view biotechnology. For some people, these
technologies are considered blasphemous. To them, God has, in effect, created a perfect, natural order, and
it is sinful to try to improve that order by manipulating DNA, the basic ingredient of all life.
Still, not all religious believers make these assertions, and different believers of the same religion can hold
differing views on the subject. Some modern theologians even see biotechnology as a challenging, positive
opportunity for us to work with God as “co-creators.”
Stem Cell Research
Another major area of ethical debate surrounds the use of stem cells. Embryonic stem cell research holds
much promise, because these undifferentiated stem cells can differentiate into any cell type found in the
human body and because they also have the capacity to reproduce themselves. The ability to maintain these
stem cell lines in culture and direct their development into specific cell types holds the potential to save
many lives by controlling cancer, re-establishing function in stroke victims, curing diabetes, regenerating
damaged spinal cord or brain tissue and successfully treating many diseases associated with aging. In
addition, by studying these cells we will begin to understand the mechanisms that guide cell differentiation.
Many people, however, strongly oppose embryonic stem cell research on the grounds that it requires the
destruction of early embryos. It is for this reason that many religions have come out in opposition to this
research; they consider these embryos to be human life. Much of the current research done on these stem
cells, however, involves stem cells extracted from human embryos destined for disposal, such as those
produced for in vitro fertilization.
Another set of ethics concerns the animals used in biotechnology. While it has been noted that animals
may, in fact, benefit from the use of animal biotechnology — through improved health, for example — the
majority of discussion is about the known and unknown potential negative impacts to animal welfare
through the process.
For example, calves and lambs produced through in vitro fertilization or cloning tend to have higher birth
weights and longer gestation periods, which lead to difficult births that often require cesare an sections. In
addition, some of the biotechnology techniques in use today are extremely inefficient at producing fetuses
that survive. Of the transgenic animals that do survive, many do not express the inserted gene properly,
often resulting in anatomical, physiological or behavioral abnormalities. There is also a concern that
proteins designed to produce a pharmaceutical product in the animal’s milk might find their way to other
parts of the animal’s body, possibly causing adverse effects.
The following educational activity is intended for high school students studying biotechnology. It is designed to
stimulate critical thinking about the ethical issues surrounding the use of cloning and stem cell research — two
applications of biotechnology:
1. Give students the following scenario to read, or read the following aloud to the class:
• You live in a town where StemTech, a private biotechnology company, is conducting human stem
cell research. Several StemTech ads have appeared in the local newspaper looking for women who
want to be egg donors. The donor’s oocytes would not be used by a local infertility clinic for infertile
couples; instead StemTech is paying the women to donate their eggs for use in stem cell research. If
successful, StemTech plans to sell the stem cells to research labs now and later hopes to submit an
Investigational New Drug application to the FDA to test the stem cells’ ability to reverse the effects
of Parkinson’s disease in humans. StemTech also purchases fertilized human eggs from the infertility
clinic; the eggs were produced during in vitro fertilization procedures but are not used by the
2. Ask students to consider each of the following issues surrounding the scenario above:
• Should the women who provide oocytes for the company get paid for their eggs? Should they then
be eligible for royalties if one of their oocytes helps produce an embryonic stem cell line? What
about the person whose cell donates the somatic cell nucleus to the union — should he or she
• Should the infertility clinic sell the unused fertilized eggs to the biotechnology company? Should
the couples have the right to sell the eggs instead? Should the eggs be donated only to university
labs conducting human stem cell research? Or should their use in any way be considered illegal? If
so, what is the appropriate way to handle the unneeded fertilized eggs?
• Are there safeguards that prevent an embryo produced by somatic cell nuclear transfer from being
implanted and developing into a fetus? Should there be restrictions on reproductive cloning? Or do
you believe that human reproductive cloning should be permitted?
• Do you believe Congress has the right to criminalize any stem cell research that involves creating
embryos via somatic cell nuclear transfer?
• Are embryos produced through somatic cell nuclear transfer considered people in the legal, moral
and social sense? Does the embryo have rights?
A Glossary of Terms
Adult stem cells: Undifferentiated cells in a tissue. These cells can grow into any of the types of specialized
cells in that tissue.
Amino acid: The basic building block of a protein. There are about 20 different amino acids. Long chains of
amino acids make up a protein.
Antibodies: Proteins produced by the immune system of humans and other vertebrates in response to the
presence of a specific antigen.
Antigen: A substance that stimulates the production of antibodies. Examples include pollen grains, dust,
bacteria or viruses and most proteins.
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt): A species of soil bacterium that possesses genes for a group of insecticides,
the Bt toxins. Different strains of the bacterium produce different Bt toxins. Some organic farmers use this
bacterium as an alternative to using chemicals to control pest insects. The genes for Bt toxins have been
genetically engineered into cotton plants so the plants produce the insecticides.
Base: Part of four types of simple molecules or nucleotides (adenine, cytosine, thymine and guanine) that
are the subunits (building blocks) of DNA and RNA.
Bioremediation: 1. The use of plants and microorganisms to consume or otherwise help remove materials
(such as toxic chemical wastes and metals) from contaminated sites (especially from soil and water). 2. A
natural process in which environmental problems are treated by the use of bacteria or other microorganisms
that break down a problem substance, such as oil, into less harmful molecules.
Biotechnology: 1. A broad term generally used to describe the use of biology in industrial processes
such as agriculture, brewing and drug development. The term also refers to the production of genetically
modified organisms or the manufacture of products from genetically modified organisms. 2. The use of
plants, animals and microorganisms to create products or processes. Traditional applications include animal
breeding, brewing beer with yeast, and cheese making with bacteria. Recent developments include the use
of enzymes or bacteria in a wide range of applications, including waste management, industrial production,
food production and remediation of contaminated land. Modern biotechnology also includes the use of
gene technology, which allows us to move genetic material from one species to another.
Bt crops: Crop plants that contain genes for Bt toxins.
Bt toxins: Insecticidal proteins produced by the soil microorganism Bacillus thuringiensis.
Cell: The smallest functional unit of a living organism.
Chromosome: A threadlike component in cells that consists of a single long molecule of DNA coated with
proteins. Genes are carried on the chromosomes.
Clone: A group of genes, cells or organisms derived from a common ancestor. Each clone is genetically
Cloning: The process of production of a group of genes, cells or organisms that are genetically identical
from a common ancestor.
DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid): A molecule of DNA consists of a long chain of nucleotides that are
composed of deoxyribose, a five-carbon sugar (a phosphate group linked to the bases (nucleotides) adenine,
thymine, cytosine and guanine). DNA contains the genetic code that controls the production of proteins in
Embryonic stem cells: Undifferentiated cells in an embryo that are able to multiply and become
differentiated into any type of cell in the body.
Fertilizer: Any of a large number of natural and synthetic materials, including manure, nitrogen,
phosphorus and potassium compounds, that are spread on or worked into soil to increase its capacity to
support plant growth.
Gene: A sequence of DNA, located on a chromosome, that codes for the synthesis of a specific protein or
has a specific regulatory function.
Gene therapy: The addition of a functional gene or groups of genes to a cell using recombinant DNA
techniques to correct a hereditary disease.
Genetic engineering: A term used to cover all laboratory or industrial techniques used to alter the genetic
material of organisms. These techniques assist organisms to produce new substances or to perform new
functions. For example, they can increase yields of compounds already produced by the organism, form new
compounds or allow organisms to adapt to drastically altered environments.
Genetic modification (GM): Any process that alters the genetic material of living organism.
Genetically modified organism (GMO): An organism (plant, animal, bacteria or virus) that has had its
genetic material altered, either by the duplication, insertion or deletion of one or more new genes or by
changing the activities of an existing gene.
Genome: The total genetic material of an individual or species.
Herbicide: A substance that kills plants.
Insecticide: A substance that kills insects.
Mutation: The process by which a gene undergoes a change in the base sequence. Some mutations result in
the gene no longer coding for the correct protein or producing a reduced amount of the protein.
Nuclear transfer technology (cloning): The process that involves the removal of the nucleus of a cell
followed by the transfer of a nucleus from another cell into it.
Nuclei: The structure within the cell that contains the chromosomes.
Nucleotide: The subunit of DNA and RNA.
Organism: A living thing that contains DNA and is capable of cell replication by itself, from bacteria to
Pesticide: A chemical that kills pests.
Pharming: The process of farming genetically engineered plants or animals to be used as living
pharmaceutical factories. The practice has used cows, sheep, pigs, goats, rabbits and mice to produce large
amounts of human proteins in their milk. Plants are being used to produce vaccines and diagnostic reagents.
Plasmid: A small circular form of DNA that carries certain genes and is capable of replicating
independently in a host cell.
Protein: A long-chain molecule consisting of amino acids. The type and order of the amino acids in a
protein is specified by the DNA in the cell that produces them.
Recombinant DNA: The DNA formed by combining segments of DNA from different genes or different
types of organisms.
RNA (ribonucleic acid): A single-stranded nucleic acid that transmits genetic information from DNA to
the cytoplasm and controls certain chemical processes in the cell, such as the synthesis of proteins. Double-
stranded RNA forms the genetic material in some viruses.
Transgenic: Refers to an organism with one or more genes that have been transferred to it from another
organism using recombinant DNA techniques.
Virus: A group of particles that do not have a cellular structure and therefore cannot replicate outside of a
living, host cell. They consist of a molecule of DNA or RNA surrounded by a protein coat.
Xenotransplantation: Any procedure that involves the transplantation of live cells, tissues or organs from
one species to another, including animal-to-human transplantation.
Access Excellence is a national educational program started in 1993 to provide health, biology and life
science teachers access to their colleagues, scientists and critical sources of new scientific information via
the Internet. This site features the Biotech Chronicles, a brief history of biotechnology discoveries, essays
on genetics and DNA research, profiles on some of the influential individuals who have helped build the
biotechnology industry and time lines detailing biotechnology from a historical perspective.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization was formed in 1993 by two small, Washington-based
biotechnology trade organizations — the Industrial Biotechnology Association and the Association of
Biotechnology Companies. The site contains a wealth of information on biotechnology. Use the site index on
the left side of the home page to access information.
Biotechnology Australia is a multidepartmental government agency established in 1999. The agency
is responsible for managing the National Biotechnology Strategy and for coordinating nonregulatory
biotechnology issues for the Australian government. The site is dedicated to providing balanced and factual
information on biotechnology. Use the site index on the left side of the home page to access a variety of
information about the biotechnology industry.
The Department of Agriculture provides leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources and related issues
through public policy, the best available science and efficient management. Its Cooperative State Research,
Education and Extension Service is an agency created by Congress in 1994. The site contains information
about the science behind animal biotechnology and a glossary of terms. Related topics also are searchable,
and they include animal breeding, genetics and many others. Follow search links located on the left side of
the home page to access the biotechnology page and the site’s search engine.
The National Agricultural Library is one of four national libraries of the United States. It houses one of
the world’s largest and most accessible agricultural information collections. Use the search engine to find
publications and news releases with the latest information in the biotechnology field.
The North Carolina Biotechnology Center, located in Research Triangle Park, N.C., is the world’s first
government-sponsored organization dedicated to developing the biotechnology industry. Created by the
North Carolina General Assembly in 1984, the Biotechnology Center’s mission is to provide long-term
economic and societal benefits to the state through the support and growth of business, biotechnology
research and education throughout the state. The site acts as a portal to a variety of biotechnology resources;
follow the Biotech 101 link on the home page to search for this type of information.