a scientist in a lab coat "holding" virtual DNA

All about biotechnology

Technology and innovation to improve our quality of life

Diseases, high levels of pollution, difficulty growing crops in certain areas... just a few of the issues faced by the population of the 21st century. Thanks to recent developments and research, biotechnology can offer us many solutions. 

It allows us to transform foods, treat water, develop sustainable materials, and design vaccines, among many other examples. The most interesting thing is that it can be applied to multiple sectors.


What is biotechnology?

Biotechnology is a branch of science that combines biology and technology with the aim of improving people's quality of life. It uses living cells or any of their components to develop products with specific aims. 

The 1992 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defines biotechnology as “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific uses”. 

In 1919, agronomist engineer Károly Ereki thought that biology could be used to convert raw materials into useful products. By joining the words biology and technology together, he coined the term. 

The word biotechnology, etymologically, comes from Greek.  “Bio” means “life” and “logy” means “science”. The term “technology” refers to “skill, art, or craft”, so it could be defined as a way of doing things that meets the needs of people, through the application of scientifically organized know-how. 

If we follow this definition, biotechnology has been present in our lives for centuries. We can find the first practical uses in something as usual as making bread, wine, or beer. The common denominator of these three things is fermentation, or the use of yeast, and the preservation of foods. 

There was a scientific breakthrough that was a turning point in biotechnology: the manipulation of DNA. From then on, two eras of biotechnology are differentiated:

  • Traditional biotechnology, which doesn’t use DNA manipulation techniques, and
  • Modern biotechnology, which uses genetic engineering to manipulate the DNA of organisms with different purposes.

Both currently serve our society. 

Applications of biotechnology today

Biotechnology is a multidisciplinary area that is applied to pharmaceuticals, agriculture, food sciences, and forestry sciences. Its application results in improved medicines, more productive crops, and even more resilient materials, among others. Let’s look at some of its applications: 

a hand holding a beaker in front of a field of wheat with scientific icons superimposed

Environmental biotechnology

Environmental biotechnology serves to create more sustainable crops, as well as to optimize natural resources. Some faculties of microorganisms, fungi, enzymes, and plants are used to recover contaminated ecosystems.

close up of a hand holding a pencil over a paper with DNA data

Medical biotechnology

It represents a breakthrough in guiding the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases based on a person's genes. Medical biotechnology makes it possible to create personalized medicine, taking into account the characteristics of each patient and their pathology.

a man using a virtual reality headset and hands to perform a task in a lab

Industrial biotechnology

It uses enzymes and microorganisms to develop new materials and biotechnological processes. It can be applied to packaging, hydrocarbons, chemical products, cosmetics, biofuels, renewable fuels, textiles, and much more. 

two scientists inspecting a plant in a lab

Plant biotechnology

A series of techniques are used to improve the varieties of plants, with the aim of avoiding insect pests, diseases, and weeds that can destroy crops. It is also used for phytoremediation, a combination of plant and environmental biotechnology, which uses plants to decontaminate soils, purify water, and clean indoor air. 

close up of a scientist observing a tube with a virtual DNA

Molecular biotechnology

It modifies biological systems in order to apply them to another field, such as biochemistry, genetics, or cell biology. This makes it possible to study the interactions of the different cell systems, including DNA with RNA, protein synthesis, and metabolism.

scientist preparing a vaccine for a cow

Animal biotechnology

Animal biotechnology studies three big areas: animal genomics, the cloning of animals, and transgenic animals. The aim is to promote human health, improve the health of land animals, develop improved foods, and contribute to preserving the environment. 

photos of viruses under a microscope

Pharmaceutical biotechnology

It examines the biological processes of cells, bacteria, or other microorganisms to create pharmaceutical products such as antibiotics, genetic therapies, vaccines, and more to research and cure diseases. 

a researcher collecting a water sample from a pond

Marine biotechnology

It is one of the most recent branches that exclusively studies marine beings in order to care for species and their ecosystem. The most important areas of action are ocean pollution and algology, a science that would make it possible to obtain cosmetic and food ingredients from algae. 

Types of biotechnology by color, according to their area of research

The different types of biotechnology are grouped into colors, according to the area of research:

  1. Red biotechnology: refers to the health branch, whose aim is to develop vaccines, drugs, regenerative medicine, gene therapy, and new analysis and diagnosis techniques. 
  2. Green biotechnology: applied to processes from the agricultural sector to nourish crops, protect them from extreme weather events, and combat pests.
  3. White biotechnology: linked to the industrial sector. It studies the manufacturing and development processes of biofuels so that industry is more sustainable and efficient. 
  4. Yellow biotechnology: researches the production of foods to reduce saturated fat levels, modify calorie intakes, or supplement vitamins. 
  5. Brown biotechnology: focuses on the treatment of arid and desert soils by studying species that are highly resistant to saline and dry soils.
  6. Blue biotechnology: studies all the processes related to the seas and oceans to obtain cosmetic, health, or aquaculture products. 
  7. Gray biotechnology: focuses on the preservation and recovery of natural ecosystems that have been altered by contaminants.  
  8. Gold biotechnology: related to bioinformatics. It is tasked with the analysis of data in biological processes (DNA sequences, amino acids, etc.).
  9. Black biotechnology: linked with bioterrorism and biological wars. Virulent microorganisms that could become biological weapons or that counteract their harmful effects are researched. 
  10. Orange biotechnology: disseminates interesting information about biotechnology to attract future scientists.
  11. Purple biotechnology: studies all legal aspects related to biotechnology (safety measures, data protection, patents, etc.). 

Examples of biotechnology at Repsol

At Repsol we develop tools that allow us to present biotechnology as a new branch in energy processing. 

Let’s look at some examples of biotechnology in these success stories:

Hands holding recycled plastic chips

This is an ambitious project carried out in collaboration with 6 companies, in which Repsol will research the production of biohydrogen through dark fermentation technologies and the production of synthesis gas through techniques involving the steam reforming of  bioethanol. The aim is to find new green hydrogen production technologies to supply industry and the Spanish transportation system. According to forecasts, it is expected to exceed the production target set for 2030 in the Spain's Hydrogen Roadmap

Piles of complex plastic at a recycling center

At Repsol we collaborate, alongside 7 other companies, in the Eclipse project, coordinated by the Spanish Center for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI). The aim is to obtain a sustainable, circular, and comprehensive system for recycling and recovery of complex plastic waste that is versatile, tested in automotives, and transferable to all strategic industrial sectors. This will contribute to reducing the effects of climate change and minimizing emissions and our carbon footprint. An action aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the European Union Green Deal.

Perseo Biotechnology tanks

3. PERSEO Biotechnology: Repsol an bioethanol

The Repsol project in co-development with PERSEO Biotechnology is a commitment to the circular economy. The aim is to transform organic municipal solid waste into bioethanol, a type of alcohol obtained from different types of plants rich in cellulose, such as sugarcane, molasses, or cereals like corn. Biofuels, such as bioethanol, are a safe and clean fuel alternative, as they reduce CO2 emissions, don’t generate waste, and boost the local economy.