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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 function.

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 diseases.

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 characteristics.

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 control.

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 production purposes.

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 helpful.

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, unsupervised research.

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 college-level education.
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Title Annotation:Careers in the New Technologies
Author:Braddock, Douglas
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 1984
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