The OECD defines biotechnology as the application of science and technology to living organisms, their components, products and models to modify living or non-living materials for the production of knowledge, goods and services.
Biotechnology, or “bioconversion technology”, is the result, as its name suggests, of a marriage between the science of living beings – biology – and a set of new techniques from other disciplines such as microbiology, biochemistry, biophysics, genetics, molecular biology, computer science, etc.
By abuse of language, it is often restricted to the field of genetic engineering and to technologies resulting from transgenesis, making it possible in particular to intervene on the genetic heritage of species in order to decipher or modify it (see genetically modified organism).
After the discovery of DNA, research in cell biology and pharmacochemistry made several scientific leaps, moving from cell culture to cell engineering and the engineering of living tissues, both healthy and cancerous, with cell fusion, the invention of new vaccines and immune stimulants. Artificial fertilization and embryo manipulation have progressed together.
At the end of the 1990s, companies specializing in biotechnologies appeared. The OECD defines them as companies engaged in biotechnology by using at least one biotechnology technique (as defined in the list above) to produce goods or services and/or to improve biotechnology research and development. Some of these firms may have very broad fields of action but devote only a small part of their economic activity to biotechnology. Thus were born Amgen, Genentech, Decode Genetics, Genset, Transgene, which became famous thanks to a historically unparalleled attractiveness for the market capitalisations of young companies, which however ended in a crash in 2001-2002. The strongest, such as Amgen, Genentech, or Transgene will continue to grow, launching their own drugs. Others such as Decode Genetics and Genset will disappear in the acquisition-merger process.
From 2000 to 2010, microorganisms, possibly genetically modified, and many enzymes are increasingly used in many sectors of the economy; in research, in the food and pharmaceutical industries, in certain medical activities or recycling, waste disposal, soil or water purification, energy production (methanisation, etc.) in particular. But these new developments also affect certain related activities (maintenance, cleaning, repair and raise new issues of safety and health at work).
At the same time, and often with some delay, labour regulations tend to evolve to protect workers’ health against new risks.