Differences Between Biotechnology and Nanotechnology

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  • While nanotechnology and biotechnology appear similar, they are not interchangeable and, rather, represent two distinct fields of science.
  • Thus far, we have covered the definition of nanotechnology.
  • Now, we will discuss biotechnology, and then compare and contrast the two fields.


Definition of biotechnology

  • Biotechnology is a life science discipline that relates to the study and engineering of living organisms, mainly for the commercial production of various goods and services. 
  • Biotechnology is an interdisciplinary field, stemming from:
    • Biology
    • Biochemistry
    • Molecular Biology
      and Engineering
    • Genetic Engineering
    • Agricultural Science



Molecular Biology

Agricultural Science



Genetic Engineering


More on biotechnology

  • The term “biotechnology” was coined in 1917 by Hungarian engineer Karl Ereky, but it was not until the early 1970s that biotechnological techniques were adopted by the food and agriculture industries.
  • Using advanced laboratory techniques for culturing cells, manipulating genes, separating and purifying biomolecules, and computational modeling, biotechnologists have achieved remarkable scientific breakthroughs, such as:
    • Sequencing the human genome
    • Innovating gene therapies
    • Advancing agricultural products
  • Biotechnology has made possible
    and improved the effectiveness of
    a range of pharmaceutical,
    medicinal, and agricultural goods.

Example of biotechnology

  • Biotechnology applied to pharmaceuticals:
    • Biologics,” or biotechnology-enabled pharmaceuticals, are a crowning achievement of applied biotechnology. 
    • These drugs are produced by living organisms, such as bacteria. 
    • For example, human insulin is a biologic produced by E. coli bacteria.

(A)  DNA is specially engineered, extracted, and purified.

(B)  This DNA is inserted into E. coli bacteria, which then produces human insulin as a metabolic byproduct. 

(C)  After the insulin is extracted from the culturing colonies and purified, it is available as a therapy for patients with type 1 diabetes.

Fun fact: It may sound strange, but some of our favorite foods, such as cheese and yogurt, are also produced by utilizing bacterial activity!

E. coli bacterium cell

E. coli bacteria colony

Bioengineered E. coli

Human insulin

Biotech vs. Nanotech

Biomaterials and nanomaterials

  • To talk about biotech vs. nanotech, we must first understand the different materials involved.


  • The smallest biological molecules and biomaterials (e.g., DNA, proteins) are comparable in size to nanomaterials.

    • However, nanomaterials are manmade, so these are not considered nanomaterials!

  • Other biological structures
    (e.g., cells, viruses) are much larger than nanomaterials.


tennis ball






cancer cell




largest nanomaterials

human eye resolution limit

visible under the naked eye

invisible under the naked eye


nanoparticles; nanoshells


Distinguishing biotech from nanotech - 1

  • Although both biotechnology and nanotechnology operate on very small materials, they are distinguished by both:
    • The types of materials they utilize, and
    • The applications for which they are utilized.
  • Biotechnology involves the manipulation of biological molecules, viruses, and living microorganisms for applications in the fields of pharmacology, medicine, and agriculture.
    • Biotechnologists modify biomolecules (the “molecules of life”) such as antibodies, hormones, nucleic acids, and proteins, which generally range from 0.3-15 nm.
    • Biotechnologists also engineer of viruses (10s-100s of nm), bacteria (1-3 µm), animal and human cells (10-25 µm), and plant cells (10-100 µm).
  • Nanotechnology, in contrast, involves the manipulation of mostly artificial, inorganic materials with dimensions of 1-100 nm (with some exceptions up to 300 nm).

⇦ Materials of biotechnology

Materials of nanotechnology ⇨

  • In addition to utilizing different materials, the applications for which biotechnology and nanotechnology are utilized also distinguish the two fields.
    • Biotechnology is primarily applied to life science fields such as agriculture, health science, and pharmacology.
    • In contrast, recall that the primary applications of nanotechnology include advancements in computation, high-performance electronics, and energy production and storage.
  • As we have seen, nanotechnology also has applications in certain life science fields.
    • Next, we will explore what happens when these fields overlap.

Distinguishing biotech from nanotech - 2

Applications of biotech

Applications of nanotech ⇨

Nano-Biotech & Bio-Nanotech

When biotech and nanotech combine...

  • How can they be combined?
    • As both biotechnology and nanotechnology deal with very small-scale technologies, there is sometimes an overlap between the two fields.
  • This overlap creates two sub-fields:
    • Nano-biotechnology
    • Bio-nanotechnology

(Left) Nanostructures can be integrated into biological systems, such as in the brain. (Right) Nanostructures can be created using biological molecules,
such as antibodies or DNA, as building blocks.


  • Nano-biotechnology lies at the intersection of biology and nanotechnology and deals with the interface of inorganic nanomaterials and biological molecules.
  • Nano-biotechnology uses advances in nanotechnology to improve areas that are generally referred to as “life science,” where biotechnology already has a large presence. 
    • For example, one of the major goals of modern biotechnology is the development and production of a new generation of drug therapies and diagnostic assays/tests.
    • To achieve this goal,
      bio- and nanotechnologies
      are often combined,
      utilizing both nanoparticles
      and biological nano-objects
      such as antibodies, DNA,
      and viruses.

(A) A gold nanoparticle coated with antibodies.

(B) A gold nanoparticle coated with DNA.

(C) A carbon nanotube covered with biological molecules.

Examples of nano-biotechnology

  • Nano-biotechnology involves integrating biological molecules to the surface of nanomaterials for applications such as the development of novel diagnostic assays and new therapies for difficult-to-cure diseases.

Example: Creating a spherical nucleic acid

DNA strands that are generally very difficult to be delivered to the cell’s nucleus for gene therapy can now be mounted on a nanoparticle, which helps them easily enter the cell. 

Nanoparticles with DNA attached are used to deliver DNA into cells.


  • Bio-nanotechnology utilizes basic biological materials to produce functional nanostructures. 
  • Nucleic acids, such as DNA and RNA, are commonly used to create nanostructures due to the highly predictable binding patterns of nucleotides and their self-assembling nature. 

In bio-nanotechnology, DNA can be used as a construction material.

For example, DNA can been built into a cube (left) or a truncated octahedron (right).

Examples of bio-nanotechnology

  • Bio-nanotechnology is used to make tools or structures to study processes and how things work. 
  • For example, DNA nanotechnology utilizes DNA molecules to develop certain nanostructures.
  • Other biological macromolecules are used in the development of nano-machines as well.

In bio-nanotechnology, basic biological materials (such as DNA) are used to produce functional nanostructures.


...puts nano in biotechnology !

  • Biotechnology studies and engineers living organisms (biomaterials).
  • To easily remember the difference, think about the main/base technology:

...puts bio in nanotechnology !

  • Nanotechnology makes and engineers new nanomaterials and nanostructures.

Nano- biotechnology

Bio- nanotechnology

Nanomaterials are utilized to further the studies of biology, medicine, and biotechnology.

  • Example: Using nanomaterials with biomaterials attached, or modifying biomaterials with nanomaterials

Biological materials (e.g. nucleic acids, proteins) are utilized to make nanostructures.

  • Example: Using DNA to make nanomachines

Bio-nanotechnology uses biomaterials to make nanostructures.

Nano-biotechnology uses nanomaterials to further study biomaterials and organisms.

Want to test your knowledge? Take the quiz!

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To learn more about nanotechnology, visit omninano.org