What is biotechnology?
Biotechnology is the use of biological processes to solve problems or make useful products. Humans have been using biological processes for much of our history. Our human species began growing crops and raising animals 10,000 years ago to provide a stable supply of food and clothing. We have used the biological processes of microorganisms for 6,000 years to make useful food products, such as bread and cheese, and to preserve dairy products.
So what is new and why is biotechnology receiving so much attention?
During the 1960s and 1970s our understanding of biology reached a point where we could begin to use the smallest parts of organisms, their cells and molecules, in addition to using whole organisms. A more appropriate definition in the new sense of the word is "New" Biotechnology - the use of cellular and molecular processes to solve problems or make products.
We can get a better handle on the meaning of the word "biotechnology" by simply changing the singular noun to its plural form, "biotechnologies," because biotechnology is a collection of technologies that capitalize on the attributes of cells and biological molecules, such as DNA and proteins.
In spite of the extraordinary diversity of living things, all cells contain essentially the same kinds of biological molecules. The biological molecules we use most often in biotechnology are DNA and proteins. Virtually all living cells contain genetic material, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). DNA provides instructions for making other cells and performing cellular tasks. DNA contains the information, but proteins provide the building materials for making new cells and are also the workers that carry out DNA's work orders. Each cell in every living thing contains a work force of thousands of different kinds of proteins, assigned to particular tasks. The DNA contains the instructions for making proteins and coordinating their activities.
Cells and biological molecules are extraordinarily specific in their interactions. Because of this specificity, the tools and techniques of biotechnology are precise and are tailored to operate in known, predictable ways. As a result, the products of biotechnology will be better targeted to solving specific problems, generating gentler or fewer side effects and having fewer unintended consequences. Specific, precise, predictable. Those are the words that best describe today's biotechnology.
Since biotechnology is responsible for recent rapid development of many new drugs, the pharmaceutical industry has shifted the former emphasis on chemical drug discovery and synthesis to drug discovery and development using the methodology of biotechnology. The term "biopharmaceuticals" reflects this approach. Many biotechnology companies now work with major pharmaceutical companies because of their experience in clinical testing, regulation, and marketing, all major activities necessary to bring a new biotechnology drug to the public.
The Human Genome Project (genomics) and the challenging field of proteomics will greatly increase the number of potential targets for therapeutic interventions in medicine and the health sciences. Hundreds of new medications now arrive on the market each year. For cancer alone, there are 316 drugs in clinical trials with thousands more expected to enter the pipeline.
Microarray technology is transforming laboratory research because it allows us to analyze tens of thousands of samples simultaneously. DNA and protein chips consist of thousands of different DNA or protein samples. DNA chips are used to detect mutations in disease-causing genes, monitor gene activity, diagnose infectious diseases and identify the best antibiotic treatment, identify genes important to crop productivity and disease resistance, and improve screening for microbes used in bioremediation. Protein chips will be used to discover protein biomarkers that indicate disease stages, assess potential efficacy and toxicity of drugs before clinical trials, measure differential protein production across cell types and developmental stages, and in both healthy and disease states, study the relationship between protein structure and function, assess differential protein expression in order to identify new drug leads, and evaluate binding interactions between proteins and other molecules. In addition, tissue arrays, whole-cell arrays, and small-molecular arrays are speeding up our abilities to more quickly understand complex living processes.
What are the career opportunities in biotechnology?
In the 1980s, swift advances in basic biological knowledge related to genetics and molecules spurred growth in the field of biotechnology so that today, the biotechnology industry employs some 191,000 people. Companies in the biotechnology area are engaged in developing products and services in the following areas: therapeutic, human diagnostics, supplier, agricultural, chemical, environmental, and others.
Biomedical scientists using this technology manipulate the genetic material of cells and organisms, attempting to make organisms more productive or resistant to disease. Research using biotechnology techniques, such as recombining DNA, has led to the discovery of important drugs, including human insulin and growth hormone. Many other substances not previously available in large quantities are starting to be produced by biotechnological means; some may be useful in treating cancer and other diseases. Today, many biomedical scientists are involved in biotechnology, including those who work on the Human Genome Project, isolating, identifying, and sequencing human genes. This work continues to lead to the discovery of the genes associated with specific diseases and inherited traits, such as certain types of cancer or obesity. These advances in biotechnology have opened up research opportunities in almost all areas of the biological sciences, including commercial applications in agriculture, environmental remediation, and the food and chemical industries.
Biomedical scientists who work in applied research or product development use knowledge provided by basic research to develop new drugs and medical treatments, increase crop yields, and protect and clean up the environment. They usually have less autonomy than basic researchers to choose the emphasis of their research, relying instead on market-driven directions based on the firm's products and goals.
Biomedical scientists doing applied research and product development in private industry may be required to express their research plans or results to nonscientists who are in a position to veto or approve their ideas, and they must understand the business impact of their work. Scientists are increasingly working as part of teams, interacting with engineers, scientists of other disciplines, business managers, and technicians. Some biomedical scientists also work with customers or suppliers, and manage budgets.
Biomedical scientists who conduct research usually work in laboratories and use electron microscopes, computers, thermal cyclers, or a wide variety of other equipment. Some conduct experiments using laboratory animals or greenhouse plants. For some biological scientists, a good deal of research is performed outside of laboratories. For example, a botanist may do research in tropical rain forests to see what plants grow there, or an ecologist may study how a forest area recovers after a fire.
Some biomedical scientists work in managerial or administrative positions, usually after spending some time doing research and learning about the firm, agency or project. They may plan and administer programs for testing foods and drugs, for example, or direct activities at zoos or botanical gardens. Some biomedical scientists work as consultants to business firms or to government, while others test and inspect foods, drugs and other products.
Biotech companies are located principally in the following geographic areas: New England, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Washington, D.C., suburbs, Southern California, North Carolina, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Since biotechnology is regarded to be one of the most rapid growth industries of the new century, many state governments are initiating programs to develop and attract more biotechnology industry to their state. Economic experts predict that these high-paying, high-quality jobs will be crucial to the nation's economic well-being in the years to come. Of a total of 1,457 total biotechnology companies employing over 191,000 employees in 2002, only 64 were located in the mid-west region that includes Missouri. Of the total, 342 are publicly held. By April 2003 the total value of publicly traded biotech companies at market prices was $206 billion. Compensation in biotechnology companies is competitive and includes incentives such as stock option plans, 401(k) plans, companywide stock purchase plans and cash bonus plans.
How does the biomedical scientist prepare for a career in biotechnology and biopharmaceuticals?
The technologies employed in biotechnology are the primary focus of the knowledge and skills offered in the comprehensive academic major in cell and molecular biology (CMB) in the Biomedical Sciences Department at SMSU. The cell and molecular biology major consists of a "core sequence" of five courses that provides the backbone of knowledge and skills used in biotechnology. In addition, a selection of cell and molecular biology-based elective courses allows students to gain additional knowledge and skills that prepare them for specific careers or satisfy particular interests. The core sequence and many of the elective courses include learning and refining "hands on" laboratory skills. The use of various databases begins in BMS 231 (Genetics with a laboratory) and 321 (Biomolecular Interactions) and culminates in BMS 525 (Molecular Biology) and 558 (Recombinant DNA Techniques). A specific elective course in Bioinformatics (BMS 593) extends the student's core sequence experiences in utilizing various databases and biomedical resources.
For students expecting to find employment in biotechnology, a course in Biotechnology (BMS 540) is available as an elective. This course in biotechnology is designed to help students transition from the environment of academia into the world of business and industry. Research and industry employers give very high evaluations and commendations to those employees who graduated from our cell and molecular biology program with regard to their knowledge, skills, and performance in the workplace (CMB program assessment data, 2002).
For more information
Dr. Colette M. Witkowski, (417) 836-8961, Prof. Bldg, Room 404
Advisor for careers in biotechnology/biopharmaceuticals
Dr. Christopher C. Field, (417) 836-5478, Prof. Bldg, Room 352
Advisor for careers in biotechnology/biopharmaceuticals
Department of Biomedical Sciences
Missouri State University
Springfield, MO 65897