Biotechnology: Answers to Some Common Questions

Education Services / L’équipe des services d’éducation
13 September 2012

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What is Biotechnology?

Biotechnology is a technology that is based on biology, and uses living organisms to make innovative products and techniques that will improve our lives. The industry of Biotechnology is diverse, and within it, researchers are finding new tools that use plants, animals and microorganisms to create products that we can use or to be part of industrial processes like agriculture or the development of new drugs.

Many of these tools involve Genetic Engineering (GE). GE is a process where scientists and researchers deliberately modify the genetic makeup of an organism. This is accomplished by a collection of techniques known as recombinant DNA technology. DNA is found within the nucleus of most cells and contains the instructions for the cell and determines what the organism looks like and how it functions. A segment of DNA that codes for a specific trait is called a gene. Recombinant DNA technology allows scientists to bring together genetic material from two different sources creating new sequences. These changes allow scientists to create new products, drugs or processes that do not occur naturally in nature.

Where is biotechnology used in Canada?


Biotechnology has allowed researchers to design new drought resistant crops, as well as herbicide tolerant and insect resistant crops. Researchers can now create healthier crops with added nutritional components, advance the way that our crops are grown and decrease the impact of agriculture on our environment. Recently, Canadian researchers discovered a gene that controls how plants can minimize their water loss in hotter temperatures, a key piece of information for developing crops that can tolerate increased temperatures.


The majority of Biotechnology research in Canada is health based. Research in this sector leads to new therapies and drugs, new vaccines and new diagnostic and testing equipment for patients. Currently, over 25 companies in Canada make vaccines for childhood and adult diseases. The progression of biotechnology and Canadian innovation is moving forward the discovery of new vaccines that will change public health in Canada and around the world.


Industrial biotechnology applies the tools of biotechnology for industrial processes. Researchers use cells, enzymes and renewable organic matter for manufacturing, creating alternative energy or developing sustainable biomaterials. Research in industrial biotechnology also helps to develop innovative household and industrial products and techniques. This research provides new solutions for water purification, biodegradable detergents and cleaners and environmental contamination and clean up.

When did we start using Biotechnology?

Biotechnology has been used in one form or another since our early ancestors first domesticated crops and livestock and discovered how to make beer and wine. The following biotechnology timeline link demonstrates where biotechnology has come from and where it has taken us.

Timeline of Biotechnology Innovations

Who is Involved in Biotechnology?

Biotechnology companies and researchers in Canada are leaders in each of the sectors of biotechnology. They continue to work with new companies and scientists to create new solutions to emergent health, environmental and economic challenges.


Scientists working at universities, government agencies or companies in industry work diligently to develop the scientific knowledge and tools that are used in modern biotechnology. New research is also being completed at independent scientific organizations. The following list is a few of the research organizations across Canada that are studying biotechnology today:

  • Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada
  • Alberta Research Council
  • Aurora Research Institute
  • BCIT technology center
  • Canadian Grain Commission
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada
  • National Research Council of Canada
  • Ontario Centre of Excellence
  • Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation
  • Saskatchewan Research Council

Government Agencies

The Canadian Biotechnology Strategy is the government of Canada’s plan for biotechnology development and research. A number of different government ministries collaborate to manage the Canadian Biotechnology Strategy. They are:

  • Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada
  • Environment Canada
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada
  • Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada
  • Health Canada
  • Industry Canada
  • Natural Resources Canada


Further advances in biotechnology have shifted Canada’s economy to a ‘bio-economy’ as more and more companies are making the transition into using and selling products of biotechnology that have resulted from research initiatives. Many of these companies also do research and develop the tools and products that make advancements in health, agriculture and industry possible.


Canadian biotechnology offers famers more effective and responsible crop production solutions. For over a decade now, farmers in Canada have been planting genetically modified crops and consumers have been enjoying the benefits. Canadian famers have led the world in the adoption of many environmentally-friendly crops that reduce the use of pesticides and currently rank fourth in the world in total biotechnology crop coverage with over 17 million acres.

Advocacy, Consumer and Environmental Groups

There are a number of organizations that are vocal about biotechnology. Some of these groups advocate the research and development of biotechnology, while others are opposed to it. The opinions of Canadians concerning biotechnology differ by location and by sector. The following list of organizations gives an example of the types of organizations that exist:  

  • BIOTECanada
  • Canadian Biotechnology Action Group
  • Greenpeace Canada
  • The Council for Biotechnology Information

Where in the world is Biotechnology Used?

Biotechnology research and development continues to evolve as technology evolves. Already, biotechnology is used in in a large number of areas that we interact with on a daily basis. As research continues, Canadian leadership in biotechnology will only grow and allow us to offer expertise in different areas.

New vaccines, biodiesel and engine oils made from oilseed crops, biological therapies for cancer, HIV, AIDS and Alzheimer’s, higher quality food products, ethanol, new plastic composites from agricultural sources, trans fat-free cooking oils and renewable biomass energy sources demonstrate the vast range of uses of biotechnology innovation.

North America

·         Canada

Canada is helping to lead biotechnology research and development in many sectors from agriculture and health to environmental technologies and industrial and manufacturing solutions. The majority of research in biotechnology in Canada is health-based and over 80% of Canadians support this research and the products and processes that have been developed.

·         United States of America

The Unites States is a leader in the research and development of agricultural, medical and industrial biotechnology. Agricultural biotechnology continues to grow, with corn, soybeans, cotton and canola as the largest crops currently being grown. Medical biotechnology is the largest sector in the US with research that focuses on new drugs, vaccines and in-vitro diagnostics and industrial biotechnology currently focuses on nanotechnology, enzymes and biofuel production.


Europeans are skeptical about genetic engineering involving food products; however their biotechnology sector is still strong. They are the world’s leader in industrial biotechnology, producing 75% of the world’s enzymes. As of today, only 2 GM crops have been approved for cultivation in Europe: a variety of maize that fights off pests and Amflora, a type of potato that can be used to manufacture paper products.

South America

The biotechnology sector in South America is continuing to grow, and currently North American and European organizations are expanding here as the sector grows. South America is one of the world’s leaders in the production of biofuel and is the world’s second largest producer of ethanol. Bioethanol and biodiesel production are continuing to accelerate as well.


There is a current debate in Africa concerning the use and development of biotechnology. Some feel as though biotechnology can be the answer to the food crisis in Africa, while others associate the technology with danger and risks. The sector is continuing to evolve though, with majority of current research and development focusing on the agricultural sector in projects such as investigating the use of tobacco to make vaccines against HIV and HPV.


The biotechnology industry in Australia is maturing and growing, and research and development are currently focused on human therapeutics, industry, agriculture, food technology, medical devices and diagnostics, and cleantech. Currently Australia commercially cultivates three types of GM crops.

Why does biotechnology matter?

We may not realize it, but biotechnology is a huge part of our everyday life. From the clothes that we wear and how we clean them, the food that we eat and where it comes from, the medicine and the fuel that we use, biotechnology is there. Continued research and development in biotechnology will ensure that we are better positioned to respond to upcoming challenges in society. Previous and current research in biotechnology has played a role in creating the world that we live in today. Biotechnology is important now and for the future and Canada will continue to be a leader in this. Here are just a few of our successes.

  • Frederick Banting and Charles Best discovered insulin as a treatment for diabetes
  • Canola was developed by Canadian plant breeders
  • Dr. Paul Hebert from the University of Guelph discovered a gene that would give scientists an easy to use label to distinguish an animal from a closely related species through a process called DNA barcoding.
  • James E. Till and Ernest A. McCulloch from the University of Toronto discovered the hematopoietic stem cell. This was the basis for bone marrow transplantation.
  • Dr. David Boocock at the University of Toronto developed a new process of producing biodiesel from vegetable oil, agricultural seed oils, animal fats, grease and recycled cooking oils.
  • The Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre in British Columbia sequenced the genome of the coronavirus, a key step in understanding the SARS virus.

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