Common Biotech Terms You Should Know

Quite often, you hear about advances in biotechnology in the news. If you are not in the industry, you might feel as if the science and terms used are a little over your head. It helps to become more familiar with some of the common biotechnology terms so you can understand the latest news in the industry.


Scientist in green house examining plant, close-up
Zomi / Getty Images

Enzymes are proteins that catalyze (cause a change in) specific biochemical reactions in cells. They are important tools in biotechnology for the industrial production of bioproducts, and for other processes related to cleaning (e.g., degreasing, remediation), digestion (e.g., cellulases, de-inking, bleaching in the pulp and paper industry) where they act as agents that speed up chemical reactions in all of the processes they are used in.

Genetic modifications to enzymes through protein engineering techniques—such as site-directed mutagenesis and DNA shuffling—have allowed scientists to enhance the catalytic properties of certain enzymes under specific industrial conditions such as acidity or temperature extremes, or the presence of harsh chemicals.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

GMO refers to bacteria or other microorganisms, or multicellular organisms such as plants and animals, whose genetic makeup has been altered by scientists.

Often, GMOs are produced using gene cloning methods as a means of introducing a non-native gene into a new recombinant organism (joining DNA from different organisms). An example of this is the introduction of genes for natural pesticides into non-native crop plants, to enhance insect resistance and reduce the need for chemical pesticides.

There are numerous applications for GMOs in the biotech industry. However, they are often viewed as suspect by many and public controversy surrounds their uses in food products.


In biotechnology, one meaning of the term "clone" is any living organism (or the production of such an organism) with genetic material that is identical to that of the parent organism from which it was created.

A second meaning refers to cloning DNA, or the act of creating copies of an individual gene, for expression in a foreign host. This leads to the generation of exact replica macromolecules (e.g. DNA, RNA, proteins).


Buffers are solutions that have the capacity to withstand the addition of small amounts of protons and/or hydroxide ions or undergo dilution, without a dramatic change in acidity. They are comprised of a mixture of a weak acid and its conjugate base, or a weak base and its conjugate acid. The buffering action is a result of the equilibrium between the acid-base pair.

Optimum buffering capacity occurs when the components of the acid-base pair are present at nearly the same concentrations. When they are present in equal amounts, the buffer will resist pH changes in the range of its pKa (acid dissociation constant).

Patents and Time

A patent is the best way to protect intellectual property (IP), specifically new biotechnology. If patents are not filed, new biotech techniques, methods, or research might not be credited to the researchers and scientists that invented them.

The length of time from filing at a patent to getting approval varies depending on where the application is filed. In the US, the process generally takes about 2 1/2 years. The processing time depends on whether or not the examiner rejects the claim based on prior patents, and whether the new patent application has to undergo amendments.

The overall time required to get a patent also depends on the time required for research and development that takes place prior to filing. In the case of new drugs and clinical studies, it can take more than 10 years.

Sterilization of Biochemical Solutions

In the mid-1800s, the process of pasteurization was described by Louis Pasteur, who discovered that heating solutions to moderate temperatures would reduce the numbers of contaminating live microorganisms. This research laid the groundwork for the development of a tool called an autoclave: an instrument in which solutions and dry materials are pressurized, causing a temperature increase for sterilization (high pressure increases temperature).

Materials are heated rapidly, typically to about 121 degrees Celsius, under a pressure of about 15 psi. The high pressure prevents liquids from boiling over, thus allowing such high temperatures to virtually eliminate most live microorganisms.


Remediation is the restoration of contaminated land, air or water from a contaminated state. Bioremediation is the process of utilizing live organisms (typically bacteria, but sometimes plants) to accumulate, transform or (usually) degrade chemical contaminants.

When plants are used, the process is referred to as phytoremediation. Phytoextraction is a technique whereby plants are used to bioaccumulate non-degradable materials, typically metals, which are then removed from the soil—this removes them from the environment when they are harvested.

Stem Cells

The most widely known source of stem cells is human/animal embryos, prompting controversy over stem cell research based on bioethics. However, recent discoveries have found that stem cells can also be obtained from the placenta and amniotic fluids, and pluripotent cells can be derived from adult cells of the skin, blood, and other tissues.

Research on the use of stem cells from non-embryonic sources has received more attention in recent years as scientists in some countries, particularly the US, are forced to search for publicly accepted, ethical alternatives.

Pharmaceutical Company Test Subjects

Clinical trials on human subjects are an important step in the development of new drugs and help assess both their safety and efficacy (the ability to produce the desired outcome). For many new drug trials, healthy volunteer subjects are needed and are usually paid for their participation, in amounts that vary depending on the risks.

Individuals interested in clinical trials can access lists of upcoming drug trials online or can investigate the research programs at individual universities and teaching hospitals.

Patients with existing conditions can enroll in drug trials through the same process as healthy subjects. Patients can also be referred by their doctor, who may have become familiar with the pharmaceutical and the clinical trials.

Article Sources

  1. National Human Genome Research Institute. "Homologous Recombination." Accessed Mar. 27, 2020.