Biotechnology companies use living organisms to create technological solutions to solve problems including diseases, pollution, farming and any other area. This could range from using the genes of plants to derive medical cures to using proteins from a fungus to make crops less susceptible to pests. While there are many applications of biotechnology, most fall into the medical, agricultural or industrial sectors.
The three types of biotech companies are medical, agricultural and industrial.
Biotechnology involves the study and application of biological systems found in organisms including bacteria, fungi, viruses, plants and animals in order to make technological advances. To put it more simply, biotechnology is the use of life forms (whether by using the organism itself or something derived from it) to help solve problems through technology.
The term was originally coined by Hungarian agricultural engineer Karl Ereky in 1919 to describe the combination of biology and technology. It's hard to believe how much the field has grown in the hundred years since he created the term.
The biotechnology industry, often shortened to "bio tech" or "biotech," is one of the fastest-growing sectors in research and development. It brings in hundreds of billions of dollars every year with new innovations that can be used in many different fields. These advances can be developed for a wide variety of purposes including preparing vaccines, feeding the hungry, creating new biofuels, developing new cosmetics or even brewing beer.
While the three main forms of biotechnology are medical, agricultural and industrial (sometimes called "red," "green" and "white" biotechnologies, respectively), there are many different types of biotechnology, some of which fall outside the scope of these three main fields and some of which combine multiple types. For example, the genetic modification of plants for use in a vaccine involves both the agricultural and medical sectors.
When biotechnology is used for purposes that can better the health or reduce the suffering of humans or other creatures, it is part of the medical biotech sector. This involves both finding cures, diagnostics, therapies, vaccines and treatments for diseases as well as finding ways to prevent disease by studying new or more efficient ways to maintain our health, by understanding diseases and by studying the biology of the human cell.
A small portion of the medical bio tech sector focuses on veterinary medicine, though the greater industry works on treatments for humans, some of which could eventually be used for animals as well. There are currently more than 250 health care products and vaccines on the market derived from biotechnology, many of which aid in controlling previously untreatable diseases.
Scientists in this field study the way bacteria, plant and animal cells function at a fundamental level. Sometimes the DNA of these cells is disrupted at a genetic level in order to increase the production of certain characteristics that could have medical applications, such as increasing the production of insulin through gene manipulation. In other cases, scientists study enzymes in these organisms that may aid in developing drugs or synthetic hormones.
Researchers hope their discoveries in genetic engineering may lead to cures or at least advances in treatments for devastating diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
Scientists are currently developing an anti-lymphoma vaccine, which is created by growing genetically engineered tobacco plants made to exhibit RNA from malignant B-cells. This could save nearly 20,000 lives per year.
They have also been using bandages coated in Chitosan, a type of sugar derived from shrimp and crab shells, that aid in healing wounds. This could prevent complications and even fatalities associated with surgical infections and other infections.
Agricultural biotechnology is focused on genetically modifying plants for the purpose of increasing crop yields or introducing desirable characteristics to make them easier to grow in particular areas with weather or pests that would otherwise make growing difficult.
Sometimes, researchers work not to improve production or to make cultivation easier but to simply make crops taste better, look more attractive, be healthier or last longer on store shelves. Agricultural biotech can also be applied to animals in order to improve food production or to make the animal heartier, which is known as animal biotechnology.
DNA modification is one of the most important tools for the agricultural biotech industry. It's worth noting that selective breeding is a form of genetic modification that has been practiced by farmers almost as long as humans have been planting crops and tending livestock, striving to make heartier crops and bigger, healthier livestock.
In modern applications, scientists working in the agricultural biotech industry will sometimes identify a desirable characteristic in a plant and then seek to find the responsible gene in another plant and then put that gene in the first plant in order to improve that characteristic. For example, scientists have transferred genes into corn from the fungus Bacillus thuringiensis, which is naturally resistant to pests such as the European corn borer. Plants with these genes then produce a protein that is naturally resistant to these pests, reducing the need for pesticide.
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are some of the most well-known applications of the biotech industry at large. While often feared by the public, GMOs can reduce the use of artificial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides by making the plants heartier from the start. More than 13.3 million farmers across the globe take advantage of advances in agricultural biotech.
Those with access to only limited food selections can often be subject to dangerous nutrient deficiencies. By creating food with added nutrients, people living in these areas can stay healthier even if they can only access a handful of foods. An example would be golden rice that has been infused with beta-carotene, making it a good source of vitamin A.
Another application of agricultural biotech is to make crops that can be grown in smaller areas or less-hospitable environments. Scientists have been working to create foods that can maximize the amount of food grown in a limited space, even in difficult climates such as freezing temperatures or drought-fraught lands. They are also working to find a way to breed crops that are not affected by water that is highly salinated so they can be watered with sea water.
Most other types of biotechnology fall under the title of industrial biotechnology. This involves the use of plants, marine organisms, microorganisms, algae and fungi to produce things like chemicals, materials and energy for industrial applications.
Industrial biotechnology is largely focused on environmentally friendly applications that reduce pollution and increase energy efficiency. For example, microorganisms and plants may be used to break down and dissolve waste products such as heavy metals.
The field has contributed some of the most innovative and promising approaches to industrial growth that are simultaneously beneficial for the earth, such as biofuels, biodegradable plastics and new fabrics. These innovations generally save businesses money and help protect the environment, making them popular with businesses and consumers alike.
Aside from environmental developments, industrial biotechnology can also be used in many industries. For example, microorganisms have been used for thousands of years in the creation of foods that rely on fermentation, such as cheese, beer, bread and wine. In recent years, advances in fermentation technologies have revolutionized the brewing and cheese-making industry. Scientists continue to use bioengineering to change the food industry as well as other industries.
Spider webs are one of the strongest materials around in terms of tensile strength, able to take even more force than steel when compared at the same cross-sectional width. Scientists hope to use the properties of spider webs to make stronger fabrics such as body armor, which would be stronger than Kevlar. They aim to do this by using genes from the spiders in goats. The goats then produce spider-silk proteins in their milk, which can be produced and handled easier than silk from spiders.
While it may be the newest of the three main biotechnology types and is often called the "third wave" of biotech, industrial biotechnology is the fastest-growing biotech sector and could become the largest in the foreseeable future. One thing that makes industrial biotech so successful is the rate at which innovations can move from the lab to the commercial sector, which is only two to five years, a dramatically shorter period than it takes for advances in the medical or agricultural sectors.
While the industrial sector is perhaps the fastest-growing type of biotech company, most of the top biotech companies as of 2018 are still in the medical field due to the massive profitability of innovations in that field. That being said, industrial biotech firms are now starting to appear on these lists more and more frequently.
Amgen, known for its anti-inflammatory drug Enbrel and anti-infection drugs Neulasta and Neupogen, is the largest biotech company as of 2018, according to Forbes magazine. Gilead Sciences is in second place and has ranked as the top biotech company many years in the past. It is best known for its anti-viral drugs used for the treatment of HIV/AIDS, liver disease, cancer, inflammatory disease, respiratory conditions and cardiovascular problems.
Ranked #5 of the top biotech companies in 2018, Vertex Pharmaceuticals is notable for being one of the first biotech firms to experiment with a rational drug-design strategy, meaning scientists first design and optimize a chemical structure to treat a condition and then seek out chemicals that could meet that structure and thus serve as a suitable drug. The #6-ranked company, Illumina, specializes not in pharmaceuticals but in the analysis and sequencing of genetic variations, such as genome sequencing and gene-expression profiling.
The only firm to rank on the top 10 biotech companies list in 2018 that is not fully focused on medical applications is Agilent Technologies, which creates an array of products ranging from laboratory supplies to software and consumer goods. The company deals with food safety, environmental developments, chemicals and alternative energy. That being said, they still have medical divisions working in pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, therapeutics and research.