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The word biotechnology comes from the root bio, meaning “life,” and technology, meaning “the use of science for commercial or industrial purposes.” Biotechnology, then, means one of three things: the use of living organisms and/or biological entities in commercial or industrial purposes; the use of biological research into areas such as gene splicing and DNA as applied to industry; or analysis of relationships between living organisms, such as humans, and machinery/technology. Research is the practice of scientific investigation, which is conducted according to standardized and rigorous guidelines, so biotechnology research refers to methodical study of possible or promising applications or problems and issues in the realm of biotechnology.
One type of biotechnology research often involves microorganisms, such as bacteria and yeasts, or other entities, like enzymes. It has applications in the production of food products; in the recycling of waste; in the production of drugs, hormones, antibiotics, and vaccines; and in cleaning up oil spills. Biotechnology research using enzymes is essential in the development of bread, cheese, yogurt, wine, vinegar, and beer, all of which depend on enzymes produced by microorganisms. When biotechnology research makes changes to plants, crops, and other food products, government regulatory industries may get involved.
Biotechnology research in the area of genetic engineering has led to the manufacture of products such as growth hormones, interferon, and insulin. Gene therapy research seeks to discover ways for genes that have been altered to serve in the treatment of chronic diseases and genetic disorders. Other areas being explored include heart attack treatment and infectious disease diagnosis.
Biotechnology research that considers humans in their environment, focusing on their interactions with machinery and technology, is quite different. In this sense, biotechnology research can be synonymous with ergonomics research, the study of equipment design and the design of the workplace environment. Research can focus on furniture — such as desks and chairs, vehicles, tools, computers and peripherals — such as monitors, posture, safety gear, telephones, floor plans, etc.
Training for people interested in a career in biotechnology research may be offered through a university department of biochemistry and/or molecular biology. Training includes theoretical and practical training. Laboratory sessions provide practice in using instruments and methodologies. Course requirements may include courses in the ethics of biological research, as well as in biochemistry, molecular biology, and specific biotechnology courses. Alternatively, training for biotechnology research that focuses on ergonomics issues may be offered by a program with ergonomics in its name, and focus on design, engineering psychology, motor learning or be offered as a cross-disciplinary degree in chemistry or biology and biotechnology/bioengineering.