Course:FNH200/Lessons/Lesson 09/Page 09.2

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9.2 Biotechnology

What is the meaning of "biotechnology"?

"Biotechnology is an umbrella term that covers a broad spectrum of tools and techniques, ranging from fermentation (bread, wine, cheese) to plant and animal breeding, cell and tissue culture, antibiotic production and genetic engineering. The traits of every organism are encoded in its genetic material (DNA or RNA) which is organized into individual units called genes. Genetic modification is achieved by changing the code or organization of the genetic material of an organism. This includes, but is not limited to, moving a gene or genes from one organism to another (this is commonly called genetic engineering)" From: "Frequently asked questions on genetically modified foods" Health Canada (Links to an external site.)

What are the desirable products of biotechnology?

Biotechnology is a term that began to be used in the 1980s and 90s, to describe the integrated use of biochemistry, microbiology and engineering sciences to utilize microorganisms and cultured animal and plant tissue cells and cell components in the production of desirable products. The definitions given above, from the websites of Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, indicate that "biotechnology-derived foods" includes food products obtained through a very broad spectrum of tools and techniques.

In the food industry the desirable products are food products, ingredients and additives as shown in the two columns in the following table:

Fermented Food Products Beverages (e.g. wine beer, sake)

Dairy products (e.g. yogurt, specialty cheeses, cheddar cheese)

Meat products (e.g. salami, bologna, prosciuto)

Traditional foods (e.g. sauerkraut, soy sauce, tempe, miso)

Ingredients & Additives amino acids (e.g. methionine, glutamic acid)

biopolymers (e.g. xanthan gum, alginates)

Enzymes (e.g. Chymosin-B derived from Aspergillus niger)


  • Microorganisms are used for the production of fermented food products
  • Microorganisms are cultivated as sources of enzymes and flavouring ingredients used in food systems.
  • Xanthan gum, a stabilizer used in a variety of food systems, is extracted from bacteria (Xanthamonas campestris) that in nature cause slime rot of cabbages.
    • During the production of xanthan gum, specific isolates of the bacteria are grown in large fermenters under conditions designed to maximize production of the bacterial slime. Then the cells are harvested and gum is purified for use as a thickening and stabilizing agent
  • Plant cell cultures are used to produce flavouring ingredients for use in foods. Cells of specific plants are cultured in fermentation vessels under conditions that favour production of specific flavour compounds. The culture is cultivated for a specific amount of time and then compounds are extracted from the culture.
  • Microorganisms can be used for the production of useful enzymes:

For example, bovine rennin or chymosin used in the production of cheese is in short supply. Researchers in several countries have shown that it is possible to transfer the gene which codes for rennin in the dairy cow to a bacterial cell. The implanted gene is replicated with the bacterial genetic material each time the bacterial cells divide. The implanted rennin gene permits the bacteria to produce bovine rennin. Rennin produced by means of bacterial fermentation is used widely in cheese production in Canada, the United States, and other countries.

Is food fermentation the same as biotechnology?

Although the word biotechnology is a new term, biotechnology has in fact been practiced in the agriculture/food industries for thousands of years: Yogurt production in India, bread, and beer in Egypt. Thus, in the current vernacular, food fermentation would be referred to as food biotechnology- a new name for an old process.