What is Biotechnology? - Definition, History & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is Biotechnology?
  • 0:44 History of Biotechnology
  • 3:26 Some Modern Examples
  • 4:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Hilary North

Hilary is a biomedical researcher with a PhD in neuroscience.

Expert Contributor
Christianlly Cena

Christianlly has taught college physics and facilitated laboratory courses. He has a master's degree in Physics and is pursuing his doctorate study.

Biotechnology is a broad category and includes some surprising concepts. Learn what practices and disciplines fall under this exciting and expanding classification.

What is Biotechnology?

The term biotechnology refers to any technology, process or practice that modifies or harnesses any living organism or system to be useful to any human purpose. The word defines itself: bio means life and technology is defined as the application, or harnessing of science for a specific purpose. When you hear the word biotechnology today, you probably think about scientists working at the cutting edge with viruses and genomes in a state-of-the-art laboratory, but when you consider how many different types of life there are, and how many different types of technologies there are, you begin to realize that biotechnology is a broad category that has been around for ages!

History of Biotechnology

It is not known precisely when people began using the word biotechnology to refer to technologies based on living things. Many believe the phrase was first coined in the early 1900s by a Hungarian engineer named Károly Ereky, but the practice of biotechnology began long before that and dates back almost to the beginning of human existence. The following are examples of biotechnologies over the course of history:

Agriculture, the practice of purposefully growing plants, which are living organisms, for consumption or other use, is one of the earliest forms of biotechnology. When ancient humans began to transition from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and settled into societies, they were able to do so by cultivating food in one place. Agricultural technology has itself evolved immensely over thousands of years, and all advancements from crop rotation, beginning in ancient Greece, to the creation of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, today relate to this type of biotechnology.

Animal husbandry, the process of housing, feeding, breeding and utilizing animals, is as much a pillar of human existence as agriculture. When humans domesticated animals to be beasts of burden such as oxen, modes of transportation such as horses, or even companions such as the dog, biotechnology was implemented.

Fermentation of beer and leavening of bread, two ancient and widespread methods of food preparation, are examples of early biotechnologies. Both processes require the use of the living organism yeast, which the ancient Chinese (7 BCE) and Egyptians (4 BCE) first utilized for these processes, respectively.

Vaccinations are one of the earliest examples of biotechnology applied to medicine. Vaccinations are the administration of a deactivated version of a virus that normally causes an illness into a healthy person. This teaches the immune system to look out for that virus in the future, and the vaccinated person becomes immune to the illness as a result. Although there is debate over whether a virus is truly 'alive,' vaccinations fall squarely under the umbrella of biotechnology. The first vaccination was developed at the turn of the 19th century to protect healthy people from smallpox.

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Additional Activities

Biotechnology Word Scramble Activity

For this activity, study the scrambled letters and try to unscramble or rearrange the letters to form a word or phrase that fits the given clues. To do this, you must right-click and print this page. With a pencil and an eraser, neatly write your answers in the blank space provided.

Scrambled Words

_________________________1. ANNVCCTIIOA

_________________________2. TICOSITIANB

_________________________3. LCOYGBHINOTEO

_________________________4. MALANI BNASYRHDU

_________________________5. EITNCGE ENGTSTI

_________________________6. MNGEOE

_________________________7. LILNEINPCI

_________________________8. ETSAY

_________________________9. IALGLUARURCT

_________________________10. NOGLCNI


  1. A clinical application of immunization designed to stimulate the immune system against the viruses, thereby preventing disease.
  2. Any substance that can destroy or inhibit the growth of bacteria and similar microorganisms.
  3. It refers to the use of living organisms (especially microorganisms) in industrial, agricultural, medical, and other technological applications.
  4. This process is concerned with day-to-day care, selective breeding, and the raising of livestock.
  5. A type of medical examination that identifies changes in chromosomes, genes, or proteins to determine predispositions to certain diseases.
  6. This refers to the complete genetic information of an organism that is usually modified and altered in biotechnology.
  7. The first antibiotic that was derived from molds and is still used in the treatment of various infections and diseases.
  8. An example of a leavening agent primarily used in dough or batter to make it rise.
  9. The technology that immensely evolved from advancements in crop rotation to the creation of genetically modified organisms.
  10. This is the process of creating an exact copy of an existing organism.


  8. YEAST

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