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Biotechnology Terms

Get down with the lingo


The field that generates useful products by manipulating living systems and their components. A dull definition for an exciting field.

Cloning Vector

A circular piece of DNA that has been souped-up for the easy insertion and expression of a piece of DNA.

Differentiated Cells

Cells that have already been programmed to be a certain type of cell. They know what they want to be when they grow up, and there's no stopping them.

DNA Ligase

An enzyme that acts like a glue connecting the phosphate backbone of a piece of DNA inserted into a cloning vector. Not the type made by Elmer's.

DNA Microarray

Sometimes called a DNA chip, although not as yummy as Doritos. When we talk about a "chip", we mean something more like a computer chip. Thousands of DNA sequences can be spotted on a chip to identify which sequences are present in a sample.

DNA Sequencing

The determination of the order of nitrogenous bases in DNA.


The use of an electrical current applied to a gel matrix to separate biological molecules.


The use of an electrical current to create small holes in a cell membrane. Used to introduce recombinant DNA into a cell.

Gene Cloning

The insertion of a gene of interest into a souped-up vehicle or vector that allows a single gene to be studied.

Genetic Engineering

The use of biotechnology to manipulate an organism's genome. We know it sounds like an eerie futuristic movie, but actually, it's very common.

Gene Expression

How the heritable information in a gene is manifested in the cell. Much like a circuit breaker, this can describe whether a gene is turned on or off.

Genetically Modified Organisms

Organisms in which foreign genes have been introduced for some benefit. These benefits may include cows producing milk with more protein, plants resistant to herbicides, and peas made to not be so, um, mushy. Well, maybe not the last one…yet.

Genetically Modified (GM) Food

Any food that is, whole or in part, produced with crops that have had modifications made to their genetic material.

Induced Pluripotent Cells(iPS)

Already differentiated cells that can be coaxed in the lab to rediscover themselves and become cells that have the potential to differentiate into any type of cell.

In Situ Hybridization

The use of a labeled (fluorescent or radioactive) sequence of RNA or DNA that is complementary to the sequence one wants to detect and localize. The result? Pretty and colorful data.

In Vitro Mutagenesis

Purposely altering a DNA sequence outside of an organism and then putting it back into an organism to see what happens. Yep, mutations can even be intentional.

Northern Blot

Technique that identifies a particular mRNA sequence. mRNA is separated by gel electrophoresis and then transferred to a nitrocellulose membrane. A radioactive probe that recognizes the sequence of interest is used to determine whether or not the mRNA is present. No compass needed for this technique.

Nuclear Transplantation

The removal of the nucleus of one cell and insertion into an egg cell where the nucleus has been removed.


Circular bacterial DNA


Cells that have the potential to become any type of cell. Like many students, these cells haven't quite figured out what they want to be when they grow up.

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)

The technique used to amplify small amounts of DNA.

Recombinant DNA

DNA sequence and the cloning vector into which it has been inserted.

Restriction Enzymes

Bacterial scissors or enzymes that recognize specific DNA sequences and cut the DNA at those sites.

Restriction Fragments

Pieces of DNA formed as the result of being cut by a restriction enzyme.

Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism

A single base change that is found within a site recognized by a particular restriction enzyme. Pronounced "rif lip." Makes us want to use this technique just so we can have a reason to say "rif lip."

Restriction Site

Specific DNA sequence recognized by a restriction enzyme.

Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR)

Technique that uses the enzyme reverse transcriptase to make DNA from RNA followed by amplification of the DNA.

RNA Interference (RNAi)

Use of small sequences of double-stranded RNA (siRNAs) complementary to an mRNA target of interest that causes the mRNA to be degraded or temporarily knocked down.

Selective Breeding

The process of deciding what traits should be expressed in the next generation. Farmers select the phenotypes of interest, like large fruits, vibrant color, or pest resistance, and breed only individuals that have those traits. Over time, these traits will become the dominant traits in the population.

Short Tandem Repeats (STRs)

A short sequence (usually two to five nucleotides in length) of DNA that is repeated. A short sequence of DNA that is repeated. A short sequence of DNA that is repeated. You get the point. The pattern differs among individuals.

Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP)

A variation in the nucleotide of a single base pair of a genome that is found in approximately 1% of the population.

Southern Blot

Technique used to identify a particular DNA species. DNA is separated by electrophoresis and transferred to nitrocellulose. The complementary DNA sequence, or probe, is tagged (usually with a radioisotope) and incubated with the nitrocellulose. If the complementary sequence is present, the probe will bind to it and the tag can be visualized.

Stem Cells

Thought by many to be the holy grail of science, these are cells that have the potential to become any type of cell.


Differentiated cells that are looking for a career change. They can be dedifferentiated and then coaxed to become a completely different type of cell.

Transgenic Animals

Organisms in which a desired gene sequence has been inserted and expressed.

Western Blot

Technique used to identify proteins. Proteins are separated by electrophoresis and then transferred to a nitrocellulose membrane. The membrane is incubated with an antibody specific for a particular protein. Then a secondary antibody specific for the organism that produced the first (primary) antibody is added. The secondary antibody is involved in a chemical reaction that produces a product that can be visualized. It's a cousin of the Northern and Southern blots.

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