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What is biotechnology?

The term ‘biotechnology’ has numerous definitions according to its context or purpose. In New Zealand, our school curriculum uses a relatively broad definition that includes both modern and ancient biotechnologies.

Biotechnology in the school curriculum

Biotechnology is part of Technology in the New Zealand Curriculum (2007). However, no definition of biotechnology is provided.

In the earlier New Zealand Technology Curriculum (1995), biotechnology is defined as: “The use of living systems, organisms, or parts of organisms to manipulate natural processes in order to develop products, systems, or environments to benefit people.”

This definition of biotechnology is relatively broad and covers both ancient and modern biotechnologies. This definition includes:

  • products – for example, food, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals
  • systems – for example, compost, waste management, water purification
  • environments – for example, hydroponics, biocontrol
  • genetic or biomedical engineering – for example, stem cell therapies, pre-implantation diagnostics, genetically modified crops.

Can you think of other examples of biotechnology that fit with the Technology Curriculum’s definition?

Other definitions of biotechnology are very limited. They may only cover techniques like DNA manipulation and genetic engineering.

Get information sheet: Definitions of biotechnology

Ancient biotechnology

Humans have used organisms to make products for more than 10,000 years. The earliest examples of biotechnology are the domestication of animals and growing of crops for food. These biotechnologies prompted a fundamental change in society – from hunting and gathering to farming and raising livestock.

About 4,000–8,000 years ago, humans began using microorganisms to make products like beer, wine, yoghurt, cheese and bread. They were also beginning to use organisms or organisms’ products in medicine.

Get information sheet: Ancient biotechnology

Early manipulation of genes

Selective breeding occurred once plants and animals had been domesticated. Selective breeding enhances traits in plants or animals. It is still used today to produce organisms with desirable traits. Selective breeding involves mating parents with certain traits to produce specific traits, or combinations of traits, in their offspring.

The early pioneers of selective breeding didn’t know that traits were inherited through genes. However, what they were doing was essentially manipulating the genetic makeup of organisms for the benefit of humans.

Modern biotechnology

Over the last few hundred years, the range of biotechnologies has risen rapidly. This is associated with our increased understanding of organisms, cells and their products.

Most recently, the key to developing new biotechnologies has been the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953. Since that time, much has been learnt about DNA. In the 1970s and 80s, many techniques were developed for working with DNA that contributed to our ability to sequence genomes from many organisms. This included the sequence for the human genome, which was published in 2003 after more than a decade of work.

Our ability to identify, copy and manipulate genes directly has led to:

Get information sheet: Modern biotechnology

The impacts of biotechnology on society

Biotechnologies use organisms or parts of organisms, so they often raise ethical or legal concerns. For example, should we clone animals, use embryonic stem cells to treat disease or transplant organs from pigs to humans?

Get information sheet: Impacts of biotechnology on society

Get worksheet: Exploring the impacts of biotechnology on society.

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