What does a biotechnologist do?

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What is a Biotechnologist?

In the simplest of terms, biotechnology is technology based on biology. It is an applied science, meaning that biotechnologists manipulate the basic building blocks of living organisms to develop new products and processes that improve the world around us.

They study the physical, genetic, and chemical characteristics of cells and tissues and identify practical uses for this knowledge, predominantly in the areas of medicine and pharmaceuticals, food production, biofuels, and environmental conservation.

When breakthroughs occur in the fight against rare diseases, the effort to reduce our environmental footprint, the mission to feed the hungry, the goal to use less and cleaner energy, or the safety and efficiency of manufacturing processes, biotechnologists are invariably among the scientists at the forefront of the research.

What does a Biotechnologist do?

Four biotechnologists working in a laboratory.

Biotechnologists apply the results of their research to solve real-world problems. What they do on a daily basis depends on the sector in which they are employed.

Here is an overview of the kinds of work carried out by these applied scientists.

Medical Biotechnology
The applications of modern biotechnology in medicine include the development and improvement of treatments and drugs, identification of inherited diseases, cures for certain disorders, and advances in organ regeneration. These are some major applications:

  • Cloning of the human insulin gene in a bacterial host – this ensured continuous sufficient supply of insulin required by diabetes patients to remove excess sugar from their blood
  • Gene therapy – transplantation of normal genes into cells in place of missing or defective ones in order to correct genetic disorders
  • Molecular diagnosis – the process of identifying a disease by studying molecules, such as proteins, DNA, and RNA, in a tissue or fluid
  • Pharmacogenomics – this branch of genetics is concerned with how an individual’s DNA affects the way they respond to therapeutic drugs; pharmacogenomics is an example of the field of precision medicine, because it has led to the production of drugs tailored to an individual’s genetic makeup; pharmacogenomics can be applied in diseases such as cancer, depression, HIV, and asthma
  • Edible vaccines – biotechnologists are genetically engineering banana trees and tomato plants to produce vaccines in their fruit; in other words, they are modifying the genomes of these plants by the addition of a foreign gene or the removal of a detrimental gene, making them ‘transgenic’ plants

Agricultural Biotechnology
This branch of biotechnology develops microorganisms for specific agricultural uses:

  • Improved yield from crops – scientists are using biotechnology techniques to transfer one or two genes into a crop to give it a new trait, in the hope of increasing its yield
  • Reduced vulnerability to environmental stresses – biotechnology will allow the development of crops containing genes that will enable them to withstand drought, rain or floods, and excessively salty soil; biotechnologists and plant geneticists are studying plants that can cope with these extreme conditions, trying to identify and isolate the genes that control these beneficial traits; researchers have also created plants that are resistant to viruses and fungal infections
  • Increased nutritional qualities of crops – biotechnologists are working on modifying proteins in foods to increase their nutritional qualities; proteins in legumes and cereals may be transformed to provide all the amino acids needed by human beings for a balanced diet
  • Improved taste, texture, or appearance of food – modern biotechnology is being used to slow down the process of spoilage, so that fruit can ripen longer on the plant and then be transported to the consumer with a still reasonable shelf life; in addition to improving the taste, texture, and appearance of fruit, this will also extend the usable life of the fruit and expand the market for farmers
  • Reduced dependence on fertilizers, pesticides, and other agrochemicals – for example, a soil bacterium that produces a protein can act as an insecticide; this is a naturally occurring protein, not a foreign chemical
  • Production of vaccines in crop plants – this application occurs at the intersection of medicine and agriculture; in addition to edible vaccines, referenced above in the medical biotechnology section, biotechnologists have created a transgenic purple tomato that contains a cancer-fighting compound and others that have high levels of antioxidants

Industrial Biotechnology
Industrial biotechnology uses cells or components of cells to generate industrial products such as food and feed, chemicals, detergents, pulp and paper, textiles, biofuels, and biogas. Some examples are:

  • Biocatalysts – a biocatalyst is a substance, such as an enzyme or hormone, that initiates or increases the rate of a chemical reaction; biotechnology can be used to manufacture biocatalysts in commercial quantities; biocatalysts are used in the production of pharmaceuticals and antibiotics, amino acids and vitamins, and food ingredients such as sweeteners
  • Fermentation – most of the fuel ethanol produced around the world is made by fermenting the sugar in the starches of grains such as corn, sorghum, and barley, and the sugar in sugar cane and sugar beets
  • Microorganisms – microorganisms are used in chemical production for the design and manufacture of new plastics / textiles and the development of new sustainable energy sources such as biofuels

Environmental Biotechnology
Environmental biotechnology addresses environmental problems, such as the genetic rescue of a species, the removal of pollution, renewable energy generation, or biomass production – all by using biological processes for the protection and restoration of the quality of the environment.

Regardless of which of the above branches they choose to work in, all biotechnologists spend some of their time designing and implementing research studies; developing new research procedures; collecting, studying, and testing samples such as food, cells, tissues, blood samples, bacteria cultures, and living organisms; recording findings and analyzing results; and identifying how their research can be applied to improving human life.

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What is the workplace of a Biotechnologist like?

Employers of biotechnologists include:

  • Pharmaceutical and chemical companies
  • Biotechnology and genetic engineering companies
  • Universities
  • Hospitals
  • Government and private research institutes
  • Clinical research (genetics, disease detection, therapy, etc.) companies
  • Agricultural, horticultural, and crop production companies
  • Food and drink manufacturers
  • Environmental and conservation (sewage and waste treatment, fuel, pollutant degradation) companies

The most common work environment is a modern laboratory conducive to conducting experiments, both individually and in collaborative teams. Biotechnologists use a range of standard and highly specialized, often computerized laboratory equipment. Entry-level biotechnologists assist researchers in recording findings and analyzing results and are typically responsible for properly cleaning lab instruments.

Generally speaking, biotechnologists work a standard work week, between 35 to 40 hours. However, when conducting experiments requiring continuous monitoring, they may be called upon to work shifts, nights, and weekends. Biotechnologists who need to travel to different locations to check equipment or collect data may have a more variable schedule.

Biotechnologists are also known as:
Environmental Biotechnologist Industrial Biotechnologist Agricultural Biotechnologist Medical Biotechnologist