Tech UPTechnologyThe 11 colors of biotechnology

The 11 colors of biotechnology

If there is a branch of science that has revolutionized scientific research in the 21st century, it is biotechnology, understood as any technological application that uses biological systems and living organisms or their derivatives for the creation or modification of products or processes for specific uses. In fact, biotechnology (together with biochemistry and molecular biology) is currently the first discipline in percentage of scientific contributions and impact in the international context. As can be read in the latest report from the Spanish Association of Biocompanies (ASEBIO), Spanish biotechnology represents 3.2% of international scientific production in the area, with Spain being the eighth power in the world in biotechnological scientific publications. Spanish biotechnology produces 26% of the articles ranked among the 10% most cited in the world.

On the other hand, molecular biosciences and their biotechnological applications are considered, after information technologies, the next great wave of expansion of the knowledge-based economy. A proof of the enthusiasm generated by this scientific discipline in the stock markets is that biotechnology was one of the most profitable sectors of the NASDAQ Composite in 2019 . In that year, there were 3,585 companies in Spain that carried out activities related to biotechnology and the biotechnology sector invested more than 940 million euros in R&D, of which 71% corresponded to Biotech companies (the purely biotechnological ones). These data are justified by the number of applications that biotechnology has in areas as apparently different as food, medicine, the environment, cosmetics, agriculture or the fight against bioterrorism. Another of the added values of biotechnology is that it is a multi and interdisciplinary area , which is supported by other disciplines such as biology, chemistry, physiology, engineering or computer science to obtain its results. Despite the multiple benefits of biotechnology, a very significant percentage of the population does not know what this scientific discipline consists of or what fields it addresses. To solve this, an innovative classification of biotechnology based on colors has been developed.

I have been teaching for many years both in the Biotechnology degree and in the Master in Biotechnology and Cell Biology at the University of Murcia. I am also part of the “Biochemistry and Enzyme Biotechnology” research group and I disseminate the science associated with this scientific discipline. Well, experience has shown me that classifying the different areas covered by biotechnology by color is a success. This classification serves both students and society in general to easily understand and remember the different applications of biotechnology. Of course, it must be made clear that the “biotechnology colors” do not behave like watertight compartments. Many of the applications of biotechnology are simultaneously part of different colors. For this reason, it should not surprise us that the same product can be framed at the same time within yellow, green or purple biotechnology.

Initially, biotechnology was classified into only four colors (red, white, green and blue). However, the spectacular increase in the number of its applications made it necessary to expand the range to eleven. Let’s analyze them.

1. Red or sanitary biotechnology

If there is an area of biotechnology that is in fashion, it is red biotechnology, also called health. This branch is one of the disciplines responsible for the development of vaccines against many diseases, including COVID-19. But red biotechnology is not only dealing with the pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2, but has also taken a giant step forward in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of many other diseases. The health applications of biotechnology allow the more ethical, cheaper and safer production of an increasing number of drugs (insulin, erythropoietin, growth hormone, Factor VIII…). According to the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, thanks to red biotechnology, more than 250 different vaccines and medicines have been developed. This color of biotechnology is also responsible for in vivo and ex vivo gene therapies that are used in the fight against different cancers, molecular diagnostics, the search for substances that modulate key molecular targets, gene intervention procedures or directed to the control of reproduction and differentiation of stem cells or the manufacture of artificial organs…

2. Green biotechnology

Due to its importance in the development of genetically modified plants, one of the most controversial branches of biotechnology (due to the rejection of some sectors) is green, also known as agri -food. The use of biotechnological techniques for the production and improvement of genetically modified foods for the eradication of hunger and malnutrition in large areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America is one of the objectives of this branch of biotechnology. In fact, it is used by almost 15 million farmers in the world to combat pests, enrich food, help them defend themselves against microorganisms, drought or frost. But the field of action covered by green biotechnology goes far beyond transgenic plants. It is also responsible for promoting the agricultural sector through the development of effective biopesticides, the design of antibiotics that improve plant health, the biological control of pests, etc.

3. Blue Biotech

Few areas of biotechnology have such great potential as marine or blue, responsible for the study of aquaculture, the diversity of the marine environment and aquatic ecosystems . The lack of knowledge that we still have of many aspects related to the underwater world makes it an ideal ecosystem for the search for new resources. In fact, thanks to blue biotechnology, foods, cosmetics and even drugs rich in bioactive compounds present in plankton or algae extracts are being developed. Even the care of species, the preservation of marine ecosystems and the search for new sources of bioenergy, as is the case with the production of biofuels from algae, are objectives of blue biotechnology.

4. Yellow biotech

One of the most important business sectors is related to the food industry . Its weight in the world economy is very large compared to other areas. Part of the responsibility lies with yellow biotechnology, the branch of science that deals with the production and processing of safe foods with high nutritional or organoleptic value . Through the use of yeasts, bacteria or other living organisms, yellow biotechnology is responsible for both improving traditional foods (bread, cheese, wine, beer…) and new foods. Examples of the latter are found in probiotics (foods or supplements that contain live microorganisms intended to improve human health) or in the famous golden rice (genetically modified rice developed with the aim of combating vitamin A deficiencies in some developing countries). developmental).

5. White Biotech

Its main objective is the design and analysis of biotechnological processes aimed at obtaining products, goods and services, as well as the management and control of biotechnological processes in industrial production plants . Within the specific objectives of white or industrial biotechnology is to develop more sustainable and environmentally friendly processes that reduce, and even eliminate, pollutants produced in some traditional industrial processes. To achieve these objectives, white biotechnology usually employs two strategies: use biodegradable raw material that consumes little energy or use enzymes or living organisms that minimize the toxic products generated industrially. An example of all this can be found in the use of enzymatic processes to eliminate toxic waste from paper manufacturing. Other objectives are the generation of clean energy from living organisms and the production of biodegradable plastics.

6. Brown Biotech

Animal welfare must be one of the planet’s goals. That is why biotechnology has dedicated a color, brown, to developing and producing drugs, vaccines and food for the animal world. Genetic modifications of animals that aim to improve their health or prolong their life are the subject of brown biotechnology. The innovative genetic banks of endangered species are another representative example of the role of this branch of biotechnology in animal welfare.

7. Gold Biotech

One of the branches of science that has gained strength in recent years is golden biotechnology. This area aims to simulate biotechnological processes, sequence genomes of living organisms, design new drugs, develop new DNA databases, create ad hoc genes, model proteins, etc. To do this, it uses computational models and powerful bioinformatics tools that allow the behavior of many molecules to be predicted, which not only shortens the time spent on research carried out in laboratories, but also reduces the use of animals in experimentation and saves money on research costs. research.

8. Gray Biotech

One of the great objectives facing society in the 21st century is the improvement of the environment. To achieve this, a multi and interdisciplinary scientific approach is essential where biotechnology plays a crucial role. Well, the branch of biotechnology that is responsible for conserving our environment is gray biotechnology, a discipline that also has a high responsibility in generating sustainable economic growth based on knowledge of the effects of human intervention on the heritage of existing biological and geoclimatic diversity. Soil bioremediation, biodetection and monitoring of environmental pollution, biopurification of water, biofilters or the conservation of species (animals and plants) are some of its fields of action. Also, the use of microorganisms for the treatment of water and soil or to eliminate microplastics or other pollutants from the sea are objectives of gray biotechnology.

9. Violet Biotech

The appearance of a new scientific discipline always generates doubts and rejections. In the case of biotechnology, this reaction is increased by using techniques little known to the population that are even capable of modifying existing products or generating new ones. In addition, and although biotechnology is commonly used to develop new products that improve our quality of life, it can also be used to develop dangerous biological weapons or conduct unethical research. Violet biotechnology is responsible for avoiding this situation and deals with all the legal aspects related to biotechnology . For example, the creation of legislation on biotechnological aspects as relevant as: biosafety; production, use and distribution of genetically modified organisms; animal genetic experimentation and manipulation; bioethical aspects of animal experimentation; human molecular genetic analysis; gene and cell therapies; or regulations on embryo manipulation, transgenesis and cloning. In addition, the ethics committees of universities and other research centers rely on gray biotechnology so that research carried out within the framework of biotechnology does not cross the limits of ethics.

10. Orange Biotech

One of the main problems with biotechnology is the unjustified bad reputation it has among a large part of the population. The misinformation about genetically modified organisms or genetic engineering, basic aspects in the area of biotechnology, makes necessary the existence of dissemination campaigns of this scientific discipline aimed at the population. Well, the color of biotechnology that is responsible for its scientific communication is orange. The dissemination of biotechnology is becoming so important that the White Book on Biochemistry and Biotechnology indicates that a biotechnologist must be able to communicate through different formats (press, radio, television, conferences, etc.) fundamental aspects of his professional activity to other professionals in their area, or related areas, and a non-specialized audience. They must also demonstrate a good ability to participate in debates on various bioethical aspects, including those related to animal experimentation, the generation of genetically modified organisms, human molecular genetic analyses, clinical trials and gene and cell therapies. In other words, a biotechnologist must have among his skills a great handling of orange biotechnology.

11. Black Biotech

In recent years, the use of biological weapons in armed conflicts has gained great importance, both in terrorist acts and in major wars. The objective of black biotechnology is to develop new products that counteract the power of virulent microorganisms or other living beings with the capacity to cause damage. Recently, the Biochemistry and Enzymatic Biotechnology research group of the University of Murcia has used black biotechnology to discover that plant pigments called betalains, present in beets, cacti and other plant sources, are capable of competing for a certain metal with molecules present in the spores of Bacillus bacteria, such as the one responsible for anthrax, and its presence can be detected in biological weapons thanks to this phenomenon.

a missed opportunity

Twenty-four years ago, in 1998, an unusual event occurred in Switzerland. In a controversial referendum , the Swiss people had to decide whether to stop the progress of genetic engineering and biotechnology in their country. Based on possible health or environmental risks and ethical reasons related to genetically modified organisms, a group called the Initiative for Genetic Protection (GPI) made up mainly of environmentalists, some NGOs and the Green Party forced the government to carry out a popular consultation that pursued three objectives:

a) Prohibit transgenic animals.

b) Prohibit field work with transgenic plants.

c) Prevent the granting of patents both for the genetic modification of animals and plants and for the products that could be derived from them, including possible biotechnological vaccines.

The first surveys were devastating for the future of biotechnology in Switzerland. A large majority of society was initially against this scientific discipline and planned to vote in favor of the consultation proposed by the IPG. The consequences for biotechnology would be devastating. In addition to the huge economic losses for the biotech sector, some 40,000 jobs would disappear, including those held by 5,000 scientists. A victory for the IPG would mean the brake, and the almost certain disappearance of half a thousand research projects that were being carried out in the 180 Biotech companies existing at that time in Switzerland, in universities and in other public and private research centers.

Only a 180-degree turn could bring about a change in the situation… and it came in the only possible way. An alliance was produced between biotechnologists belonging to universities, academies, associations, professional associations and Biotech companies. All the professionals who used this branch of science on a daily basis as a tool for generating knowledge and economic development came together with a single goal: to save biotechnology. And what did they do? Disseminate science, that is, use “orange biotechnology” as a weapon.

orange won

Biotech professionals took to the streets in their white coats (sometimes literally) taking part in talks with consumers, debates in the media, scientific conferences aimed at the general public… even Nobel Prize-winning Swiss scientists gave a lecture to try to stop this biotechnological tragedy. All those involved told the population about their results, their benefits, explained the advantages and disadvantages (which also exist) of biotechnology, refuted many unfounded accusations and fears with scientific arguments…

Finally, on June 7, 1998, Switzerland decided in a referendum on the future of biotechnology. Previous polls gave a spectacular turnaround at the polls. The popular initiative against genetic manipulation was only supported by 33.4% of voters, while 66.6% decided to leave the door open to genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms . The scientific dissemination carried out by specialists in biotechnology had an effect and today Switzerland is one of the leading European countries in this essential branch of science. Orange biotechnology won that referendum.

The Swiss experience left, in my opinion, four important lessons that we should have learned for the future:

1) Any scientific branch, disseminated rigorously and using the appropriate tools, can be successfully explained to the population.

2) Society is willing to change its opinion on certain issues if it is explained in an understandable way.

3) Professionals in any sector must dedicate part of their time to communicating to the population what their work consists of… but not only when they see themselves up to their necks in water.

4) Scientists and industry need to collaborate closely for the benefit of society.

Unfortunately, 24 years after that referendum, we have not learned our lesson . The percentage of scientists who disclose science, although increasing, is clearly in the minority. The vast majority of researchers spend hours and hours in their laboratories researching new advances in science. Once their results have been published in specialized journals, they are rarely disclosed. The scientists return to the laboratory and again begin new investigations. In my opinion, the real person responsible for this situation is not the researcher, but the system for recognizing the merits of a scientist’s work, but that is another story. On the other hand, the gap between public and private research continues to exist and that is not good for society.

Dear and well-found readers, let’s learn from what happened in Switzerland and use science as a tool to be free people , understanding freedom as decision-making based on knowledge and not on myths or falsehoods… we’re still on time.


José Manuel López Nicolás is Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Murcia. Researcher, teacher and scientific communicator.

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