Biotechnology Glossary

Amino acids

Building blocks of proteins. There are 20 common amino acids: alanine, arginine, aspargine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, proline, serine, threonine, tryptophan, tyrosine and valine. Two more amino acids have been discovered in microbes: selenocysteine and pyrrolysine.


The science of informatics as applied to biological research. Informatics is the management and analysis of data using advanced computing techniques. Bioinformatics is particularly important as an adjunct to genomics research, because of the large amount of complex data this research generates.


A therapeutic or prophylactic derived from a living source (human, animal or unicellular). Most biologics are complex mixtures that are not easily identified or characterized, and many are manufactured using biotechnology. Biological products often represent the cutting-edge of biomedical research and are sometimes the most effective way to prevent or treat a disease.

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)

The molecule that carries the genetic information for most living systems. The DNA molecule consists of four bases (adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine) and a sugar-phosphate backbone, arranged in two connected strands to form a double helix. See also Complementary DNA; Double helix; Recombinant DNA.

Double helix

A term often used to describe the configuration of the DNA molecule. The helix consists of two spiraling strands of nucleotides (a sugar, phosphate and base) joined crosswise by specific pairing of the bases. See also Deoxyribonucleic acid; Base; Base pair.

Gene therapy

The replacement of a defective gene in an organism suffering from a genetic disease. Recombinant DNA techniques are used to isolate the functioning gene and insert it into cells. More than 300 single-gene genetic disorders have been identified in humans. A significant percentage of these may be amenable to gene therapy.


A diverse class of proteins that boost the immune system. Many are cell growth factors that accelerate the production of specific cells that are important in mounting an immune response in the body. These proteins are being investigated for use in possible treatments for cancer.


The building blocks of nucleic acids. Each nucleotide is composed of sugar, phosphate and one of four nitrogen bases. The sugar in DNA is deoxyribose and RNA's sugar is ribose. The sequence of the bases within the nucleic acid determines the sequence of amino acids in a protein. See also Base.

Pluripotent cells

Having the capacity to become any kind of cell or tissue in the body. Embryonic stem cells and cells of the inner cell mass are pluripotent. Adult stem cells are multipotent. The mammalian embryo (blastocyst trophoblast plus inner cell mass) is totipotent because it can become an entire organism. Fully differentiated cells from many plants are totipotent.

Technology transfer

The process of transferring discoveries made by basic research institutions, such as universities and government laboratories, to the commercial sector for development into useful products and services.


A preparation that contains an antigen, consisting of whole disease-causing organisms (killed or weakened) or parts of such organisms, that is used to confer immunity against the disease that the organisms cause. Vaccine preparations can be natural, synthetic or derived by recombinant DNA technology.


A submicroscopic organism that contains genetic information but cannot reproduce itself. To replicate, it must invade another cell and use parts of that cell's reproductive machinery.