Biotechnology: An Essential Glossary

The quest to protect human life grows more complex every day.  The same scientific and medical advances that hold great hope for the future also present dangers.

Biotechnology especially is raising a host of ethical,moral and religious issues that threaten to challenge the very idea of what it means to be human.  Sadly, safeguards are lagging far behind.

Georgia Right to Life, GRTL, has a responsibility to help shape public policy in such a way that it protects the sanctity and dignity of life.  This does not mean we are against progress.  Rather, our goal is to prevent run away science from turning human life into a commodity.

“We know the controversy we’ll face.  The medical community will claim we’re trying to restrict its ability to develop life-changing cures for numerous diseases.  But that's not true.  It does not have to be either/or.  We can work together," explained GRTL President Dan Becker.

To help in this critical undertaking, it's essential that our supporters are informed about these complex issues.In that light, it’s essential that our supporters are informed about this complex issue when contacting legislators. 

The following glossary of key terms is the first of several articles designed to help in that effort.

Bioarcheology.  A growing field of research using genetics to determine which people groups are related to or descended from each other.

Bioethics: The attempt to apply ethical and moral standards to science.  The focus is not simply “can” we do something, but, asks “should we?”

Biotechnology:  Refers to several scientific activities designed to improve and extend life.  Much of biotechnology involves “eugenics” (see description below): the attempt to create new and improved human beings.

Cell: The basic structural and functional unit of all living organisms.  There are one-cell animals (amoebas) and multi-cell organisms such as humans, which contain about one trillion cells.

Chimera.  An organism created by combining both human and nonhuman cells and genetics.  Also called “hybrids.”

Chromosomes:  Coiled, thread-like structures in the nucleus of each cell made up of DNA (see description below) wrapped around proteins. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes.

Cloning.  The attempt to produce an identical twin of either an animal (Dolly the sheep) or a human being. The process involves taking an adult cell from an animal (or person) and placing it in an altered egg of another.

Cybernetics.  Refers to the science of combining living organisms with man-made devices.  An extreme example is the fictional “Six Million Dollar Man” who was part human and part machine.

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).  Contains the hereditary instructions needed for the development of all humans and most other organizations.  Most DNA is found in the nucleus of cells.

Embryo In Vitro.  An embryo in a laboratory petri dish.

Embryo In Vivo.  An embryo in the womb.

Embryonic Stem Cells. Cells derived from early-stage embryos that are capable of forming all the tissues of an adult body.  Scientists want to use such cells in seeking cures for various diseases.  However, the unproven and potentially dangerous process kills the embryo.

Eugenics. A movement to improve the human race by selective reproduction, thereby eliminating so-called “undesirables.” Practices have included sterilization, abortion and in the case of the Nazis, outright murder.

Gene. The molecular unit of heredity (traits) of all living organisms.

Genetics.  The study of the patterns of inherited traits.

Genetic Engineering.  The process of removing, modifying, or adding genes to a DNA molecule.  Many researchers hope the technique will ultimately be able to eliminate inherited disorders from a family.

Genome.  All of the genetic material in the chromosomes of a particular organism.

Germline cells.  Reproductive cells (from either eggs or sperm).  All other adult cells are called “somatic cells.”

Germline Genetic Engineering.  The attempt to alter the genes in sperm or eggs to correct, or prevent, a disease.  Researchers also hope the process can be used to create “designer” babies with specific traits, such as sex, intelligence and hair color.

Human Genome Project.  Completed in 2003, the effort created an interpretation of the language in the human genetic catalogue.

In Vitro Fertilization (IVF).  The process in which an egg is fertilized with sperm in a laboratory (test tube baby).  The fertilized egg is then transferred to the woman’s uterus. Its primary purpose is to help infertile couples.

Nanotechnology.  Engineering or manipulating matter (and life) on the nanometer scale, or one-billionth of a meter.

Nuremberg Code.  Developed after World War II, the internationally accepted code forbids experimentation on a human being when it’s obvious that the procedure will result in the person’s death or suffering a disabling injury.

Reproductive Cloning. Implanting a cloned embryo into a uterus with the intention of creating a live birth.  Dolly the sheep is an example.  For humans, the goal would be to help infertile couples.

Somatic Genetic Engineering. Modifying or replacing genes within somatic (body) cell.  The goal is to correct a genetic defect that causes diseases.

Therapeutic Cloning.   The creation of a cloned embryo for the sole purpose of destroying it in order to harvest its tissues for treating a variety of illnesses.

Transhumanism.   Short for “transitional human.” It suggests a futuristic time when we can create human beings that are no longer totally human: they have been mentally and physically enhanced to the point they’re “posthumans” having no immaterial soul.


Wayne Dubois
GRTL Media Advisor




·        “Human Dignity in the Biotech Century:” Charles W. Colson and Nigel M. de S. Cameron, editors.

·        Wikipedia.