Biotechnology is receiving much attention these days amid predictionsthat an increasing portion of the world’s drugs, food, andchemicals will be produced using biotechnology processes and thatbiotechnology will lead to a cure for cancer, the common cold, and manyother diseases. Some early investors have already made fortunes on WallStreet in small biotechnology companies even though many of thesecompanies have yet to make a profit. Some of the original researchershave also made fortunes, eitheir by starting their own companies or bybeing offered part ownership of a new company. But, will biotechnologydevelopments eventually result in jobs for large numbers of workers? What Is It? What is biotechnology? Why is it causing so much excitement?Biotechnology, sometimes called genetic engineering, is the manipulationof the genetic material of living organisms. (The accompanying boxfurther explains the technology involved.
) Through this process,genetic engineers–who are actually biologists and chemists rather thanengineers–can design or alter the genetic material of animals andplants to enable them to do things they cannot do naturally, much astraditional engineers can design a machine to perform a specificfunction. In medicine, biotechnology will lead to new, better, and cheaperdrugs. The recent marketing of human insulin produced by recombinantDNA is an example.
Diabetics need insulin injections because theycan’t produce enough themselves. Until recently, only insulin frompigs and cows has been available; it was in limited supply. The newprocess should provide more plentiful and less expensive insulin. Thehuman growth hormone, interferon (a substance which may be an antiviral and anticancer agent), and other chemicals previously produced in thehuman body only in tiny quantities will also soon be available in largequantities because of the recombinant DNA technique.
Numerous medical implications are also foreseen for anotherimportant new technology, which involves the development and use ofmonoclonal antibodies. These antibodies are being used for better andcheaper medical tests. They also can be used to purify drugs and othersubstances, which could be used in the treatment of cancer and otherdiseases. Other chemicals also may be produced by recombinant DNA methods.Enzymes (natural chemicals produced in living organisms that acceleratechemical processes, such as digestion) could be produced in quantitywith recombinant DNA technology. Their availability would greatlycheapen and simplify the production of vitamins, food additives, andother complex chemicals.
Some chemicals might also be produced directly with few or nointermediate steps using genetically altered micro-organisms. Almost allchemicals used in large volumes are now made from petroleum or naturalgas. Most of these chemicals could possibly be made more cheaply frombiomass (waste agricultural residue such as leaves, stalks, and wood) orcoal, using genetically altered micro-organisms. The organisms woulduse the biomass or coal as foof and convert it into the desiredchemical. Cheaper energy might also be produced by using biotechnologyto transform biomass into methanol or other fuels. In agriculture, biotechnology has many obvious applications. Justas biotechnology will improve human health, the health and size of farmanimals will be much improved by inexpensive growth hormones and feedadditives. Finally, just as micro-organisms can be genetically altered,farm animals can be improved genetically to produce desirablecharacteristic, such as rapid growth and resistance disease.
Plantsalso could be improved genetically to incorporate higher yields,resistance to insects, ability to grow in salty soil, and many othercharacteristics. How Many Jobs? The little information available indicates that the number ofbiotechnology-related jobs currently is small. A recent (1984) Officeof Technology Assessment report estimated that only about 5,000 peoplewere employed in biotechnology research and development. Depending onthe definitions used, this number could be somewhat higher but not bymuch. Five thousand people aren’t very many when you consider thatin 1983, over 100 million people were employed–it’s only oneworker in 20,000. Until recently, most people in biotechnology-related jobs have beenscientific researchers–mainly biologists and biochemists–andtechnicians and other support personnel. Now other jobs involved in thedevelopment and production of new products are being created. However,the biotechnology-related production is not expected to create many jobsbecause it will be very efficient.
According to Dr. Harvey Price,executive director of the Industrial Biotechnology Association,biotechnology-related jobs will grow rapidly but “won’treplace the auto industry” in number of jobs. Furthermore, it appears unlikely that many jobs will be created bythe use of biotechnology products. Unlike computer technology, whichhas generated large numbers of programmer and operator jobs involvingthe use of computers (as opposed to their development and production),no special skills or new occupations will be needed to use productsproduced by biotechnology.
Physicians will prescribe drugs producedusing biotechnology just as they do any other drug, and farmers willplant genetically altered crops as they do any others. Types of Jobs Available In the mid-1970’s, when the very first biotechnology companieswere started, academic researchers with Ph.D.’s in biology orbiochemistry filled most of the jobs. Now that the technology hasadvanced, some applied research is done by people with less education.And, as products move into development, a much wider range of personnelwill be needed–including bioprocess engineers who may only need abachelor’s degree. As products move into production, machineryoperators and craft workers, who can learn on the job, will be needed,and the opportunities for biologists and biochemists withbachelor’s and master’s degrees will expand.
This is typicalof the development of new technologies. In the early days of computers,programming was done by people with Ph.D.’s in mathematics andother sciences; now it can be done by people who have had relativelyshort training courses in programming.
Presently, it is estimated that about one-third of the technicalpersonnel employed in biotechnology are molecular biologists andimmunologists who manipulate genes. Molecular biologists study thechemical basis of life. Most specialize in animal molecular biology because this research is most applicable to medicine; it has beenheavily supported by the National Institutes of Health and by othermedical research organization. In the future, the employment of plantmolecular biologists is expected to grow rapidly as agriculture-relatedresearch expands. Immunologists study human and animal antibodies andother aspects of the immune system. Their work is especially applicableto monoclonal antibody technology and drug research. Bioprocess engineers, biochemists, and microbiologists developmethods of producing biotechnology products in large quantities.
Employment in these occupations will increase as products now beingdeveloped become ready for production. Bioprocess engineering has been considered a specialty withinchemical engineering; it is usually taught in engineering graduateschools, although bachelor’s degree programs are now beingestablished. When more bioprocess engineering training programs areestablished and bioprocess engineers become more common, it may evolveinto a separate engineering specialty. One of the main thingsbioprocess engineers do is to design sophisticated fermentation vats forthe micro-organisms which will produce biotechnology products.
Althoughfermentation vats have been used for centuries to make beer and wine,biotechnology vats require more sophisticated systems to control theirtemperature, the concentrations of various chemicals, the removal of theproduct, and other factors because the micro-organisms used are moredelicate and difficult to grow than the yeasts used in oldertechnologies. In addition to bioprocess engineers, chemical and othertypes of engineers will be required to develop biotechnology productionsystems, including electronic monitoring systems, methods of insuringhigh product yield, and provisions for futher processing of products. Biochemists study the chemical processes of living organisms.
Inaddition to research work, these workers will be needed to developproduction processes, including recovery, purification, and qualitycontrol. Microbiologists study the characteristics of bacteria and othermicro-organisms. These specialists will isolate, screen, and selectmicro-organisms having particular properties and determine the bestenvironment for them. Enzymologists and cell culture specialists are needed in many areasof biotechnology research and production. Enzymologists are specialistsin the production and use of enzymes, which are chemicals produced byplants and animals that enhance chemical and biological activity.
Cellculture specialists study the growing cells, both for research and forproduction purposes. Process control personnel will be needed to monitor and controlproduction. These jobs will be similar to present process control jobsin chemical and drug plants.
Sales workers and managers familiar withbiotechnology also will be needed and, as in any other organization,accountants, clerks, janitors, and many others will be employed. It should be kept in mind that none of these occupations can beconsidered new although certain new skills and techniques are used. Allof these workers–with the possible exception of bioprocessengineers–are now and will continue to be employed in areas other thanbiotechnology. For example, only about 5,000 of the more than 50,000biologists are conducting biotechnology research. Types of Employers The basic research that made the commercialization of biotechnologypossible was done in universities. Research in biotechnology-relatedareas as well as research in medicine, basic biology, and other areaswill continue to be performed in many universities.
Universityemployment usually requires a Ph.D., and faculty members usually haveteaching and other duties in addition to their research. There are many small, new biotechnology companies. Most werestarted by scientists and are less than 10 years old; many are growingrapidly.
They usually offer a fairly flexible working environment andthe potential of rapid advancement; however, job security may not be ashigh as with other employers because many of these companies have yet tomake a profit; some do not yet have a marketable product. Despite thelikely long-term profitability of biotechnology, a few new companieshave faced bankruptcies or cutbacks. Recently, some larger companies not previously involved inbiotechnology have started their own biotechnology efforts or havebought small biotechnology companies. Larger companies generally offermore stable working conditions but may lack the flexible workingenvironment of smaller companies. Some basic biotechnology-related research is also conducted by theFederal Government, especially in the National Institutes of Health. Training and Advancement In research and development, the education required is not rigidlyset.
At present, people with bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D.degrees (usually in subfields of biology or biochemistry) are beinghired. For jobs in basic or applied research, a Ph.D. in one of thespecialties is prefered.
A master’s or bachelor’s degree inbiology or biochemistry is adequate preparation for some jobs,especially jobs involving more routine laboratory tasks or more closelysupervised research than jobs filled by Ph.D.’s. Training orlaboratory experience in cell culture techniques, gene sequencing, andDNA manipulation techniques as well as general laboratory experience ishelpful. Biotechnology research establishments appear to be rather flexiblewith jobs titles and duties.
Although few workers may hold the title oftechnician, those with a bachelor’s or even a master’s degreemay actually perform technician-type tasks. On the other hand, a veryable person with only a bachelor’s degree may perform independent,unsupervised research. Most bioprocess engineers, until recently, have had at least amaster’s degree because this specialty has not been offered at theundergraduate level. Bachelor’s degree programs in bioprocessengineering are now being established in some universities.
Entry requirements for most biotechnology production processcontrol jobs will probably be the same as for other chemical processoperators: High school graduates will be hired and then trained on thejob or experienced workers will transfer from other jobs. Advancement opportunities in biotechnology research should be thesame as in other types of research. Advancement may be limited forthose with less than a Ph.D. In small companies, some scientists mayadvance to senior management positions. However, many scientists preferto remain in research jobs. Bioprocess engineers, as with otherengineers, also may be given the opportunity to advance to managementpositions.
Production personnel can probably advance to promotion toblue-collar worker supervisor; further advancement usually requirescollege-level education.