Table of Contents

What is “Biotechnology”?

Overview:  Here in Maine, an exciting new era in forest bioproducts and biotechnology has emerged during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, one that brings change to some industrial practices of the past while still allowing the traditional forest products industry to maintain its foothold throughout the state.   UMaine’s Forest Bioproducts Research Initiative (FBRI),  the largest research initiative in the state’s history, is striving to create a commercially viable,  wood-based biorefinery that can separate chipped wood into its components and produce valuable chemicals and extractives.  If successful, this biorefinery will be sited within the walls of existing, forest products manufacturing facilities such as pulp mills, providing added value to processes that have been in place for decades.     

To familiarize Maine’s middle, high school and early college students with FBRI’s work, Maine Project Learning Tree (PLT) created these five lesson sequences.  Linked as supplements to the National PLT Biotechnology curriculum, the goal of these lessons is two-fold:  to deepen students’ content understanding and process skills in science while at the same time introducing students to biotechnological and other scientific and technological advancements taking place at FBRI. 

So what is biotechnology and which FBRI practices fall under that definition? 

“Biotechnology” has its roots in ancient practices that can be traced back to some of the earliest civilizations. Agricultural practices and seeds evolved and spread beyond the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East into Europe and elsewhere around 9,000 B.C. and in Mesopotamia, the development of brewery fermentations arose in 6,000 B.C.   In pondering contemporary biotechnology, what come to mind may be genetically modified organisms or innovative pharmaceuticals.  Teachers may wish to refer to a section in the National PLT Biotechnology curriculum called “Biotechnology Background Information for Educators and Students” for additional, more-detailed information about this topic. 

Biotechnology that is involved in FBRI includes both traditional and modern ideas.  Just as the ancients used fermentation to meet their needs, one finds FBRI researchers employing  microorganisms to ferment sugars from wood to make ethanol and other valuable products.   Optimization of the wood-eating capability of these microbes relies on strategies of bioengineering that have only been available in the last few decades.  

Image: Bailey's Ecozones, The Department of Conservation, Maine Forest Service


Lesson One – What is Biotechnology?

Lesson Two – Biotechnology and Forest Bioproducts in Maine

Lesson Three – Bringing FBRI to the Classroom: Composites of the Future

Lesson Four – The “New Biotechnology” in Maine – Maintaining Our Sense of Place in the World

Lesson Five – Systems and Life Cycle Analysis