Imagine a microorganism that will clean up ocean oil spills, a new antibiotic that can be quickly altered to combat drug-resistant strains of bacteria, or a cancer vaccine that will help prolong human life. This is biotechnology.

Biotechnology uses biological systems, such as bacteria, to create goods and services. And while it's been around for thousands of years - the use of yeast in the making of cheese, bread and beer is biotechnology - our growing understanding of DNA, the basic genetic material of living organisms, has ushered this technology into an era of new discovery.

Canada is a world leader in biotech products. From Frederick Banting and Charles Bests' discovery of life-saving insulin in 1921, to the development of 3TC, an anti-viral drug effectively used to prolong the life of people infected with the AIDS virus, in 1997, Canadians have made headlines with their biotech discoveries.

The use of a biological science to create a new product was revolutionized in the 1940s and '50s with the discovery of the role and structure of the DNA molecule. Today, the technology breaks down into six areas:

  • Genetic Engineering - Selective breeding and the manipulation of genes to change the characteristics of an organism
  • Cell Culture Technology - Growing animal and plant cells in a lab, using cultured cells as production systems
  • Cell Fusion Technology - Fusing cells using chemicals or electric shock to create hybrids, and using artificial cells as delivery mechanisms for new drugs and other therapies
  • Enzyme Technology - The use of enzymes, (enzyme proteins control all of the chemical reactions that make up life) to bio-convert, degrade or synthesize materials
  • Fermentation Technology - The ability to grow cells in very large quantities
  • Immobilization Technology - The ability to attach cells, enzymes and DNA to solid, inorganic surfaces.