The Biotechnology Rainbow

Biotechnology, the use of living systems to solve problems and make useful products, is massive and expanding. Its applications range from vaccines to shoes. How are scientists keeping track of this sprawling scientific field? Like they do with other large and diverse collections – by using a classification system.

Just as we use the hierarchical Linnean system to group organisms and functional groups such as alcohols and amines to organize organic molecules, we use a color code to organize the different areas of biotechnology research and development (R&D). This color code helps us differentiate, recognize, and understand the many applications and approaches of this vast and important field. I love how a color classification system lends itself to metaphors about mixing and blending as this so often happens in research. I also love how visually appealing it is!

Here are 10 important “colors” of biotechnology.

  1. Red biotechnology is the medical branch of the field. This includes the discovery of new drugs and vaccines, the development of diagnostic tests, the advancement of gene and regenerative therapies, and the creation of artificial organs. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the largest and fastest-growing R&D areas.
  1. Orange biotechnology is an area close to our hearts! This hue includes everything related to education and particularly using biotechnologies to help next generations learn about science and technology.  
  1. Yellow biotechnology is focused on food production. This is one of the oldest biotech areas as it includes practices like winemaking, cheesemaking, and beer brewing that were developed thousands of years ago. Today it remains active and growing. It helps keep our food safe to eat by detecting dangerous pathogens, finds new ways to produce food safely and efficiently, and also provides us with new foods such as vegetarian meats.
  1. Green biotechnology is all about plants and agriculture. Green biotech began around 10,000 years ago with the domestication of wild plants and continues today both with traditional breeding methods and genetic engineering. The resulting crops have desirable traits, grow under new conditions, produce added nutrients, or require fewer pesticides/less husbandry. Some are also controversial. Opponents argue that the technology is misused to profit only certain companies and that the full impacts of GMOs are unknown. Proponents argue that this technology helps us balance the need to simultaneously provide nutritious food to a growing world population, reduce the use of energy and other resources in agriculture, and adapt to climate changes.
  1. Blue Biotechnology is an eclectic collection of technologies that all use marine bioresources. The incredible diversity of aquatic organisms adds considerably to the variety and power of this branch. Inventions range from anti-aging creams to research tools like GFP to powerful painkillers and anti-cancer drugs. Today one of the biggest areas of blue biotech is the production of biofuels from algae.
  1. Purple Biotechnology examines the legal and bioethical issues that accompany new biotechnologies. This includes intellectual property rights. It also includes biotech related policies such as those that protect patient’s data and those that limit the applications of gene editing.
  1. Dark biotechnology focuses on a nefarious application of this field – creating new biological weapons that can cause disease and death in humans or can damage livestock and crops. But it also includes technologies that prevent, detect, and counteract bioterrorism and biowarfare.
  1. Grey biotechnology is dedicated to the many environmental applications of the field. The removal of pollutants and contaminants using plants and other microorganisms, the preservation of biodiversity and genetic diversity, the creation of new industrial processes that require fewer resources and that produce few dangerous by-products, and the development of alternative energies are just a few examples of this vital and vibrant research area.
  1. Gold biotechnology is a slightly different grouping altogether. Rather than focusing on application this classification groups by approach. In this case a bioinformatic approach. This is an approach that addresses biological problems using computational techniques particularly those that can rapidly organize and analyze very large data sets. Such massive data sets are common in many biotech areas so today there’s a little bit of gold mixed into all the colors!
  1. White Biotechnology is the manufacturing or industrial branch of the field. Scientists use living cells or parts of living cells (particularly from organisms like bacteria, yeast, molds, and plants) to create new products such as chemicals, plastics, pharmaceuticals, food, and energy carriers. The results are new products or products that are more degradable, less energy intensive, less wasteful, easier to mass produce, and/or less costly. This is another area that has considerable overlap with the other colors.

As biotechnology continues to grow and tackle new problems new areas are being created. For example, many are now talking about brown biotechnology. This field focuses on the management of arid lands and deserts. Luckily there are almost as many colors out there as there are applications for biotechnology and vice versa!