Biotechnology is the use of living organisms to build physical items. While often associated with therapeutics, there are a wide range of products in agriculture, food, energy, plastics, even electronics where biotechnology components can serve as raw materials.
Biotechnology can also be used to build information-based products, particularly in genomics, but these are often used as inputs to select therapies. 23 and me, Ancestry, personal DNA sequencing and genotyping are probably the most widespread information-based biotech products.
Many well known biotechnology products are therapeutics. Genentech got approval for the first therapeutic using recombinant DNA technology in 1985 and since then biotech-based therapies such as Humira, Remicade, and Rituxan have generated more than $1 billion in annual revenue.
While fermentation has long been used to make foods, a new generation of biotech-based foods has come to market replacing animal-based dietary items. Most notably, Beyond Meat produces hamburger patties using a mixture of plant extracts and proteins.
Sometimes overlooked, electronics and digital hardware are a growing area for biotechnology. Zymergen, for example, is developing microbial-based films that can be used on printed circuit boards and ultimately produce thinner screens and more power efficient electronic components. Their work builds on the success of OLEDs (Organic Light Emitting Diodes) that are now commonly used in flat panel TVs and iPhones. Another highly advanced use of biotechnology in electronic hardware is Twist Bioscience’s DNA storage platform, which can be used to archive digital data, by coding digital bits into DNA bases adenine, thymine, cytosine, or guanine. Netflix recently announced it is using this technology to back up one of its Biohacker series.
With biotechnology permeating such a wide variety of applications now, it is poised to move well beyond therapeutics, and could well become a dominant raw material for all sorts of goods in the future.