About Biotechnology

Everyday our lives are touched by biotechnology. Portrayed as both a force for good as well as harm, the technology stirs passionate debate in the media, the corridors of power, and everyday conversations.

At its most basic level the term biotechnology refers to the use of living organisms or their products to improve human health and the environment. In one form or another biotechnology has been used for many different purposes for thousands of years. Since prehistoric times humans have used yeast cells to raise bread dough and to ferment alcoholic drinks and bacteria cells to make cheeses and yoghurt as well as strong and productive animals and plants to breed stronger and more productive offspring. In more recent times, increasing knowledge about how to manipulate and control the functions of various cells and organisms, including genes, has given birth to a burgeoning number of products and technologies for combating human disease.

About this website

WhatIsBiotechnology.org (WiB) is an independent, non-profit educational organisation. Free at the point of access, the website’s activities are supported by the Biotechnology and Medicine Education Trust BIOTECHMET (www.biotechmet.com), UK Charity Number 1165469.

WiB is an educational resource supported by Biotechmet. The Biotechnology and Medicine Education Trust (Biotechmet) is a registered charity with the Charity Commission. Registered Charity Number 1165469.

WiB’s objective is to cultivate better knowledge about biotechnology and medicine through world-class digital collections of historical sources, exhibitions, interactive experiences, films and learning resources. These resources are developed to speak to a range of audiences, from students of varying ages to scientific and medical professionals and vocational learners.

The goal of this website is to become the largest online resource for understanding what biotechnology is, its origins and the major role it plays in healthcare. Drawing on a collection of sources from scientists through to those who are responsible for its commercialisation, funding, approval and regulation, the website aims to provide a unique insight into the many complexities involved in the development and application of biotechnology. Such material is considered alongside the risks and benefits posed by biotechnology and the personal stories of those whose lives have been affected by it.

Intended to be a dynamic and growing educational resource, WiB welcomes all comments and suggestions about any people, places and sciences not already covered on the site. We are keen to have any information relating to those whose experiences are often missed in traditional accounts of the science and industry behind biotechnology, including women and those based in developing countries.

Designed to illuminate the dramatic changes that biotechnology has brought and is bringing to the treatment of disease, WiB aims to empower patients by providing information that can help them become better informed about their illnesses and therapeutic options.

About the Managing Editor

Dr Lara Marks, D.Phil, Oxford University, Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology, is the managing editor of 'What is Biotechnology?' A historian of medicine by training, Dr Marks has a wide expertise in academic research and has worked for Silico Research, a research consultancy advising on alliances between pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

She was inspired to create the website 'What is Biotechnology?' as a result of her research into the history of biotechnology which drew her attention to how few public resources are available for understanding the development and application of biotechnology in healthcare, specifically diagnostics and therapeutics.

Dr Marks has published numerous articles and books on a range of subjects. Internationally, she is most well known for her book Sexual Chemistry: A history of the contraceptive pill. The book was published by Yale University Press as a hardback in , and then as a revised paperback edition in 2010. Receiving favourable reviews in both the public press and academic circles, in 2003 the book was awarded 'Outstanding title' by University Press Books for Public and Secondary School Libraries.

Her most recent book is '"The Lock and Key" of Medicine: Monoclonal antibodies and their transformation of healthcare', The book has been called 'A masterful, original, and compelling account' by Daniel Kevles, Stanley Woodward Professor of History at Yale University, and a 'unique, impressive and well-researched volume' by Herman Waldmann, Emeritus Professor of Pathology at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at the University of Oxford. In August 2020 the book was listed in The Guardian by Mark Honigsbaum (writer and journalist specialising in the history and science of infectious disease) as among the top best books on medical breakthroughs alongside that of James Watson’s memoir 'The Double Helix' and Rebecca Skloot's 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'.

Following her book on monoclonal antibodies the Royal Society of Chemistry commissioned Dr Marks to edit the volume 'Engineering Health: How biotechnology changed medicine' (Royal Society of Chemistry, ). Written in an accessible style, the book's contributors explore the history behind different biotechnology tools, how they are used, and how they are reshaping the future of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. Among the technologies examined are genetic engineering, DNA sequencing, monoclonal antibodies, stem cells, gene therapy, cancer immunotherapy and the most recent newcomer - synthetic biology. Michael Gross, science writer comments, 'The book has turned out surprisingly readable, with Marks' own chapters being very accessible and lay-friendly. The book impresses with 19th and 20th century historical connections to things that are topical today.' Chemistry & Industry Magazine, Issue 05, 2018.

Dr Marks is a visiting fellow in the Jeffrey Cheah Biomedical Centre at Cambridge University and an Honorary Research Associate at the Department of Science and Technology Studies in University College London. In the past she was a Wellcome Award senior lecturer at Imperial College, and held teaching and research positions at the Open University, King's College London, Queen Mary College, London, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

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