Fact File: Biotechnology Basics | Western Cape Government

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Fact File: Biotechnology Basics

This fact file explains what biotechnology is, how it affects us, the controversy around various biotechology issues and the extent of the Biotech sector in South Africa.


Biotechnology is the use of living things to create useful tools and products. It has been around for centuries in baking bread, brewing beer and wine, making cheese and compost. Modern biotechnology was the result of the discovery of the structure of DNA, also called the building blocks of life. This was discovered by two scientists called Watson and Crick 50 years ago.

All living things share this DNA structure which is the genetic recipe that makes us who we are. Watson and Crick's discovery revealed how characteristics, such as the colour of our eyes, our athletic ability, and some diseases, are passed on from generation to generation. This led to an explosion of genetic research and the development of many new technologies, including modern biotechnology.


Biotechnology affects us in every area of our lives: our food, water, medicine and shelter all require biotechnology at some level. Uses of modern biotechnology include:

  • Making medicines in large quantities such as antibiotics (e.g. penicillin) and human insulin for the treatment of diabetics.
  • Combating crime through DNA testing and forensic testing.
  • Removing pollution from soil and water (bioremediation).
  • Improving the quantity and quality of agricultural crops and livestock products.


Although biotechnology has been around for a long time, the discovery of the DNA structure took biotechnology to a whole new level. Some of these new areas, including Genetic Modification (GM) and cloning, are controversial.

GM involves the transfer of a gene from one organism to another. Genes are small pieces of DNA that code for particular characteristics or functions of an organism. Before modern biotechnology, gene transfer was only possible through the breeding of organisms, with some exceptions. Modern biotechnology makes it possible to transfer specific genes from one species to another - which potentially means that a gene from an animal can be put into a plant - something that was not possible previously.

However, not all gene transfer is controversial: GM food processing enzymes, nutrition additives, medicines and even industrial enzymes are non-controversial and used daily by most of us. It is the use of GM in food production that is the main focus of controversy.

Similarly, not all applications of cloning are controversial. Cloning is when copies of genes, cells or organisms/living things are made. Cloning of disease-free plants including tea, bananas, coffee and forestry trees has benefited society throughout Africa. Cloning of animal tissues is being researched for treatment and replacement of malfunctioning organs. The controversy arises where cloning could be used to produce 'designer' people.

As with any new technology, there are both benefits and risks associated with GM and cloning. However, while biotechnology offers many possibilities, it should not be considered independently of other tools, especially in agricultural production, where it is likely to be a combination of different techniques that will provide the solution.


Here in South Africa we benefit from GM medicines, including insulin, vaccines and human growth hormones. Most of our food processing enzymes and industrial enzymes are derived from GM microbes which are used to produce starches, syrups, sweets, chocolate, juices, cheese and soap powders.

South Africa has a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) Act. This requires extensive testing of a GM plant or crop for safety before it is approved for human use or environmental release. Since 1997, five GM crops have been approved in South Africa: insect resistant cotton and maize, and herbicide resistant cotton, soya and maize. There are no animal or human genes in any approved GM crops anywhere in the world.

South Africa currently has no laws against the cloning of animals and humans, but the government has stated that it does not support human cloning.

For more information visit www.pub.ac.za.

The content on this page was last updated on 15 March 2014