Demystifying some common biotech courses

“Bioengineering, biochemical engineering, biomedical engineering, biomedical sciences, bioinformatics, synthetic biology, biochemistry etc…” You’ve probably heard many of these terms thrown around before, be it in news articles or perhaps in your everyday life. But honestly, what exactly do each of them actually mean?

Some of the common words you’d see associated with the field

I’ve been thinking of writing an article on this for a long while, partly inspired by my own experience attempting to navigate the tricky terrain of picking a suitable university course. After all, it’s pretty hard to understand what exactly a course or discipline encompasses just from two words, and sometimes names can even be misleading. For instance, chemical engineering doesn’t really involve that much chemistry (heads up, there’s actually a lot of thermodynamics and fluid flow involved). Meanwhile, there were other courses like biochemical engineering (which I eventually ended up studying), for which there wasn’t really much information online. Simultaneously, there were other courses which confounded me with their apparent commonalities — computational biology vs bioinformatics, anyone?

Hopefully, this piece will help to shed some light on the various fields of bio-related subjects that you may want to consider, as well as what exactly each of them really entails to enable you to make a more informed decision. Of course, I will admit that I have another less altruistic reason that has motivated this write-up, that being my slight ‘frustration/ annoyance/ whatever less negative word you can think of’ whenever people conclude that I have studied either chemical engineering, bio(medical) engineering or biosciences simply because biochemical engineering is generally a rarer course of study. Now, I can just direct them to this article to read up on it!

Note that I won’t go through the entire list of bio-related courses (there are simply too many), but I’ll attempt to summarise more common degrees that you’re likely to encounter. Hopefully, this is also useful to others who want a general overview of some of the disciplines within this incredible field we call biotech! Final thing: some of these fields may overlap with one another, but I’ll try to pick out the main differences between them.

Biology: So the Cambridge dictionary defines biology as “the scientific study of the natural processes of living things”. It’s a pretty general description, but summarises the field quite concisely. Essentially, anything related to living things and how they originate, evolve, grow, reproduce or processes which happen internally within the organisms would all be classified as “biology”.

Biochemistry: This branch of science focuses on understanding the basic molecules and chemical processes that take place within living creatures such as plants, animals and micro-organisms. As the name suggests (quite correctly), there is a strong focus on chemistry in the processes which occur within these internal systems. Examples of biochemistry-related topics would include metabolism, genetic replication and macromolecules.

Biotechnology: Compared to biology, which focuses more on understanding the scientific phenomena surrounding living organisms, biotechnology is the technology utilised to manipulate living organisms or biological systems to produce specific products, which are typically commercially-focused. This could include manipulation techniques (eg. genetic engineering) to improve certain biological processes (eg. fermentation). There are several types of biotechnology that has been defined which have been ‘colour-coded’ to denote different sectoral applications. In summary, this includes:

· Red biotech: Development of medical-related processes and therapies

· Green biotech: Agricultural-related eg. pest-resistant crops

· Yellow biotech: Food production-related, such as for cheeses or yogurt manufacturing

· Blue biotech: Aquaculture and marine-related tech which involves using biological materials from water sources, such as the sea

· White biotech: Industrial biotech which uses biological sources for industrial-scale production and applications eg. biocatalysts

· Grey biotech: Primarily concerned with using biotech to protect the environment, for which an example would include environmental remediation — the removal of pollutants from the environment

· Gold biotech: This relates to bioinformatics, which involves collecting large amounts of biological data, then developing methods and statistical/computational tools to analyse these datasets

Biomedical Sciences: This topic naturally focuses more on the study of the body, such as understanding how our internal systems, organs and cells function for healthcare purposes.

Biomedical Engineering: Meanwhile, biomedical engineering differs from biomedical sciences due to the presence of engineering principles, hence examples of this could include creating new medical and surgical tools, or medical devices. They are also involved in other areas like cellular engineering and medical imaging. The field typically contains elements of biomedical sciences in addition to electrical and mechanical engineering.

Biochemical Engineering: Also known as bioprocess engineering, this field focuses on the scale-up and manufacturing of bio-related products, such as pharmaceuticals or biofuels. While it often overlaps with the other areas mentioned above, an easy way to think of it is the natural follow-on after biotechnology principles have been applied. For instance, once yeast has been genetically-modified to produce more (recombinant) protein, biochemical engineers will try to scale-up production of the yeast through fermentation (growth) and then carry out various processes such as purification and packaging to yield the final form of the product.

Synthetic Biology: This field mainly endeavours to redesign biological systems by engineering them for new purposes. While genetic engineering features very strongly in the field, synthetic biology goes beyond by allowing humans to “redesign life”, through the ability to novel pathways and create synthetic DNA, which could hence give rise to new organisms. For instance, we can now create new complete biological systems from scratch, rather than just the “modification” of certain genomes which genetic engineering tends to suggest.

Bioinformatics: Combining biology, computer science, mathematics and statistics, bioinformatics focuses on the development of computational methods and software tools to interpret and make use of large biological datasets. Bioinformatics tends to feature fairly strongly for genetics and genomics purposes, and examples of real-life applications have included genome sequencing or protein structure prediction from datasets.

Computational biology: Overlapping heavily with bioinformatics, it is no surprise that the two disciplines are often used interchangeably in reference to each other. However, computational biology often encompasses an understanding of biological processes and mathematical modelling techniques, without the qualification of interpreting and manipulating large datasets and has a stronger focus on biology rather than computer science. Examples of topics would include modelling of pathways, protein folding or cell to cell interactions.

Hopefully, the above explanations provide a helpful summary of the various degrees and disciplines you are likely to encounter when reading up about the bio-related space. While the distinction may be complex, do note that a lot of schools also tend to combine a lot of these degrees together, hence a useful practice would be to also read up on the various degree programmes and individual modules to better understand what you’re signing yourself up for the next three to four years (at least)! I hope to write more about various other areas within the biotech/engineering space, as well as adjacent areas, but they’ll be a pretty varied mix of topics so stay tuned to see what’s up next. 😊

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Claire Lim

Claire Lim

A biochemical engineering and technology policy graduate, Claire enjoys reading up on tech trends and writing bio-related soliloquies on Medium in her free time