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Modern biotechnology

The discovery that genes are made up of DNA and can be isolated, copied and manipulated has led to a new era of modern biotechnology. New Zealand has many applications for modern biotechnologies.

Humans have been manipulating living things for thousands of years. Examples of early biotechnologies include domesticating plants and animals and then selectively breeding them for specific characteristics.

Get information sheet: Ancient biotechnology

Modern biotechnologies involve making useful products from whole organisms or parts of organisms, such as molecules, cells, tissues and organs. Recent developments in biotechnology include genetically modified plants and animals, cell therapies and nanotechnology. These products are not in everyday use but may be of benefit to us in the future.

Applications in biotechnology

Key applications of biotechnology include:

Meeting human needs and demands

Biotechnologies have an important role in meeting human needs and demands in medicine, agriculture, forensics, bioremediation, biocontrol and biosecurity.

  • Medicine
    Gene modification or transgenesis are used to produce therapeutic human proteins in cells or whole organisms. The cell or organism used depends upon how large and complex the protein is. For example, human insulin, a small protein used to treat diabetes, is made in genetically engineered bacteria, whereas large, more complex proteins like hormones or antibodies are made in mammalian cells or transgenic animals.

    Antibiotics and vaccines are products of microorganisms that are used to treat disease. Modern biotechnologies involve manipulating vaccines so they are more effective or can be delivered by different routes.

    Gene therapy technologies are being developed to treat diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s disease and cystic fibrosis. In New Zealand, gene therapy is being used as a way to target and kill cancer cells with fewer side effects.

    Get focus story: Evolved enzymes

    Xenotransplantation is the transplanting of cells, tissue or organs from one species into another. In New Zealand, cells from a unique, virus-free population of pigs are being used to treat people with type 1 diabetes.

    Get information sheet: Xenotransplantation

  • Agriculture
    Plants and animals can be improved by selectively breeding for particular traits or by genetic modification. Beneficial traits can be identified visually or by DNA profiling. For example, farmers may want plants with herbicide or insect resistance, tolerance to different growing environments or improved storage, or they may want livestock with better meat and wool or resistance to disease.
  • Forensics
    DNA profiling is used in forensic analysis to identify DNA samples at a crime scene or to determine parentage.

    Get focus story: Forensics

  • Biocontrol and biosecurity
    Biocontrol is when one organism is used to control the levels of another. Biocontrol methods are being used in New Zealand to control invasive plants and insects.

    Get theme: Biocontrol

    Biocontrol is also being explored as an option to control numbers of possums in New Zealand.

    Get focus story: Biological control of possums

  • Impacts of biotechnology on society
    Biotechnologies use organisms or part of organisms to make a product to meet a specific human need. This raises social and ethical issues that are important to discuss.

    Get information sheet: Impacts of biotechnology on society.


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