Biotechnology is receiving much attention these days amid predictions
that an increasing portion of the world’s drugs, food, and
chemicals will be produced using biotechnology processes and that
biotechnology will lead to a cure for cancer, the common cold, and many
other diseases. Some early investors have already made fortunes on Wall
Street in small biotechnology companies even though many of these
companies have yet to make a profit. Some of the original researchers
have also made fortunes, eitheir by starting their own companies or by
being offered part ownership of a new company. But, will biotechnology
developments 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 manipulation
of the genetic material of living organisms. (The accompanying box
further explains the technology involved.) Through this process,
genetic engineers–who are actually biologists and chemists rather than
engineers–can design or alter the genetic material of animals and
plants to enable them to do things they cannot do naturally, much as
traditional engineers can design a machine to perform a specific
In medicine, biotechnology will lead to new, better, and cheaper
drugs. The recent marketing of human insulin produced by recombinant
DNA is an example. Diabetics need insulin injections because they
can’t produce enough themselves. Until recently, only insulin from
pigs and cows has been available; it was in limited supply. The new
process should provide more plentiful and less expensive insulin. The
human growth hormone, interferon (a substance which may be an antiviral and anticancer agent), and other chemicals previously produced in the
human body only in tiny quantities will also soon be available in large
quantities because of the recombinant DNA technique.
Numerous medical implications are also foreseen for another
important new technology, which involves the development and use of
monoclonal antibodies. These antibodies are being used for better and
cheaper medical tests. They also can be used to purify drugs and other
substances, which could be used in the treatment of cancer and other
Other chemicals also may be produced by recombinant DNA methods.
Enzymes (natural chemicals produced in living organisms that accelerate
chemical processes, such as digestion) could be produced in quantity
with recombinant DNA technology. Their availability would greatly
cheapen and simplify the production of vitamins, food additives, and
other complex chemicals.
Some chemicals might also be produced directly with few or no
intermediate steps using genetically altered micro-organisms. Almost all
chemicals used in large volumes are now made from petroleum or natural
gas. Most of these chemicals could possibly be made more cheaply from
biomass (waste agricultural residue such as leaves, stalks, and wood) or
coal, using genetically altered micro-organisms. The organisms would
use the biomass or coal as foof and convert it into the desired
chemical. Cheaper energy might also be produced by using biotechnology
to transform biomass into methanol or other fuels.
In agriculture, biotechnology has many obvious applications. Just
as biotechnology will improve human health, the health and size of farm
animals will be much improved by inexpensive growth hormones and feed
additives. Finally, just as micro-organisms can be genetically altered,
farm animals can be improved genetically to produce desirable
characteristic, such as rapid growth and resistance disease. Plants
also could be improved genetically to incorporate higher yields,
resistance to insects, ability to grow in salty soil, and many other
How Many Jobs?
The little information available indicates that the number of
biotechnology-related jobs currently is small. A recent (1984) Office
of Technology Assessment report estimated that only about 5,000 people
were employed in biotechnology research and development. Depending on
the definitions used, this number could be somewhat higher but not by
much. Five thousand people aren’t very many when you consider that
in 1983, over 100 million people were employed–it’s only one
worker in 20,000.
Until recently, most people in biotechnology-related jobs have been
scientific researchers–mainly biologists and biochemists–and
technicians and other support personnel. Now other jobs involved in the
development and production of new products are being created. However,
the biotechnology-related production is not expected to create many jobs
because 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’t
replace the auto industry” in number of jobs.
Furthermore, it appears unlikely that many jobs will be created by
the use of biotechnology products. Unlike computer technology, which
has generated large numbers of programmer and operator jobs involving
the use of computers (as opposed to their development and production),
no special skills or new occupations will be needed to use products
produced by biotechnology. Physicians will prescribe drugs produced
using biotechnology just as they do any other drug, and farmers will
plant genetically altered crops as they do any others.
Types of Jobs Available
In the mid-1970’s, when the very first biotechnology companies
were started, academic researchers with Ph.D.’s in biology or
biochemistry filled most of the jobs. Now that the technology has
advanced, some applied research is done by people with less education.
And, as products move into development, a much wider range of personnel
will be needed–including bioprocess engineers who may only need a
bachelor’s degree. As products move into production, machinery
operators and craft workers, who can learn on the job, will be needed,
and the opportunities for biologists and biochemists with
bachelor’s and master’s degrees will expand. This is typical
of the development of new technologies. In the early days of computers,
programming was done by people with Ph.D.’s in mathematics and
other sciences; now it can be done by people who have had relatively
short training courses in programming.
Presently, it is estimated that about one-third of the technical
personnel employed in biotechnology are molecular biologists and
immunologists who manipulate genes. Molecular biologists study the
chemical basis of life. Most specialize in animal molecular biology because this research is most applicable to medicine; it has been
heavily supported by the National Institutes of Health and by other
medical research organization. In the future, the employment of plant
molecular biologists is expected to grow rapidly as agriculture-related
research expands. Immunologists study human and animal antibodies and
other aspects of the immune system. Their work is especially applicable
to monoclonal antibody technology and drug research.
Bioprocess engineers, biochemists, and microbiologists develop
methods of producing biotechnology products in large quantities.
Employment in these occupations will increase as products now being
developed become ready for production.
Bioprocess engineering has been considered a specialty within
chemical engineering; it is usually taught in engineering graduate
schools, although bachelor’s degree programs are now being
established. When more bioprocess engineering training programs are
established and bioprocess engineers become more common, it may evolve
into a separate engineering specialty. One of the main things
bioprocess engineers do is to design sophisticated fermentation vats for
the micro-organisms which will produce biotechnology products. Although
fermentation vats have been used for centuries to make beer and wine,
biotechnology vats require more sophisticated systems to control their
temperature, the concentrations of various chemicals, the removal of the
product, and other factors because the micro-organisms used are more
delicate and difficult to grow than the yeasts used in older
technologies. In addition to bioprocess engineers, chemical and other
types of engineers will be required to develop biotechnology production
systems, including electronic monitoring systems, methods of insuring
high product yield, and provisions for futher processing of products.
Biochemists study the chemical processes of living organisms. In
addition to research work, these workers will be needed to develop
production processes, including recovery, purification, and quality
Microbiologists study the characteristics of bacteria and other
micro-organisms. These specialists will isolate, screen, and select
micro-organisms having particular properties and determine the best
environment for them.
Enzymologists and cell culture specialists are needed in many areas
of biotechnology research and production. Enzymologists are specialists
in the production and use of enzymes, which are chemicals produced by
plants and animals that enhance chemical and biological activity. Cell
culture specialists study the growing cells, both for research and for
Process control personnel will be needed to monitor and control
production. These jobs will be similar to present process control jobs
in chemical and drug plants. Sales workers and managers familiar with
biotechnology 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 be
considered new although certain new skills and techniques are used. All
of these workers–with the possible exception of bioprocess
engineers–are now and will continue to be employed in areas other than
biotechnology. For example, only about 5,000 of the more than 50,000
biologists are conducting biotechnology research.
Types of Employers
The basic research that made the commercialization of biotechnology
possible was done in universities. Research in biotechnology-related
areas as well as research in medicine, basic biology, and other areas
will continue to be performed in many universities. University
employment usually requires a Ph.D., and faculty members usually have
teaching and other duties in addition to their research.
There are many small, new biotechnology companies. Most were
started by scientists and are less than 10 years old; many are growing
rapidly. They usually offer a fairly flexible working environment and
the potential of rapid advancement; however, job security may not be as
high as with other employers because many of these companies have yet to
make a profit; some do not yet have a marketable product. Despite the
likely long-term profitability of biotechnology, a few new companies
have faced bankruptcies or cutbacks.
Recently, some larger companies not previously involved in
biotechnology have started their own biotechnology efforts or have
bought small biotechnology companies. Larger companies generally offer
more stable working conditions but may lack the flexible working
environment of smaller companies.
Some basic biotechnology-related research is also conducted by the
Federal Government, especially in the National Institutes of Health.
Training and Advancement
In research and development, the education required is not rigidly
set. At present, people with bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D.
degrees (usually in subfields of biology or biochemistry) are being
hired. For jobs in basic or applied research, a Ph.D. in one of the
specialties is prefered. A master’s or bachelor’s degree in
biology or biochemistry is adequate preparation for some jobs,
especially jobs involving more routine laboratory tasks or more closely
supervised research than jobs filled by Ph.D.’s. Training or
laboratory experience in cell culture techniques, gene sequencing, and
DNA manipulation techniques as well as general laboratory experience is
Biotechnology research establishments appear to be rather flexible
with jobs titles and duties. Although few workers may hold the title of
technician, those with a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree
may actually perform technician-type tasks. On the other hand, a very
able person with only a bachelor’s degree may perform independent,
Most bioprocess engineers, until recently, have had at least a
master’s degree because this specialty has not been offered at the
undergraduate level. Bachelor’s degree programs in bioprocess
engineering are now being established in some universities.
Entry requirements for most biotechnology production process
control jobs will probably be the same as for other chemical process
operators: High school graduates will be hired and then trained on the
job or experienced workers will transfer from other jobs.
Advancement opportunities in biotechnology research should be the
same as in other types of research. Advancement may be limited for
those with less than a Ph.D. In small companies, some scientists may
advance to senior management positions. However, many scientists prefer
to remain in research jobs. Bioprocess engineers, as with other
engineers, also may be given the opportunity to advance to management
positions. Production personnel can probably advance to promotion to
blue-collar worker supervisor; further advancement usually requires