Biotechnology Ice Breakers: A Few Conversation Starters

quiz pictureThe biotechnology industry is one of the most dynamic out there – in fact, it never stands still! For non-scientists this can be intimidating. For scientists, it can be challenging to explain what we do in ways that non-scientists can understand and appreciate.

Scientists have made great strides in improving our ability to use molecular processes to our advantage, from discovering the basics of how to isolate and manipulate DNA to gaining an understanding of how genes direct the creation of proteins in cells.  It’s clear that there is a lot we can contribute to the scientific literacy of the general public.

In this spirit, we’ve designed a short quiz for both non-scientists (you may learn something new) and scientists (you may find it useful for engaging in conversations with your non-scientist friends and family members).  Spoiler alert: answers are provided.


Biotechnology has had an important role to play in the development of better-targeted medicines used to treat a wide range of diseases.

What hormone is the first FDA approved medicine developed using recombinant DNA technology?

  1. Progesterone
  2. Prednisone
  3. Insulin
  4. Bovine growth hormone

Answer: 3. Insulin!  The license for recombinant human insulin was awarded to Eli Lilly and Company (though the drug was developed by Genentech) and the drug Humulin® was introduced in 1982. Insulin is a peptide hormone produced by beta cells, present in the pancreas. Insulin is responsible for promoting the absorption of glucose from the blood and inhibits the production of glucose by the liver, thereby regulating the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats. Prior to scientists’ ability to recombine genes and produce biosynthetic insulin, insulin-dependent diabetes was treated using insulin extracted from pig and cow pancreas.

Recombinant DNA methods were first developed in the early 1970s and in 1980, a US patent was awarded to Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer.

Check out how it was done:


Recombinant DNA technology is employed in other ways, too. Scientists can cut and paste genes into multi-celled organisms as well as single-celled organisms.  Often, recombinant DNA technology is employed in order to confer specific traits to a target species.  For instance, many crop plants have been modified to resist herbicide treatment, to be pest resistant or to be able to withstand particular growing conditions.  These Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have been the subject of controversy and debate.

Which animal is the only Genetically Modified (GM) pet to be available to the public?

  1. GloWorm – a GM silkworm that emits a greenish light
  2. GloFish – a bioengineered zebrafish that comes in an array of colors
  3. GloMouse – a tiny pet mouse that doubles as a night light
  4. Enviropig – a GM pig that eats less and emits less phosphorus waste.

Answer: 2. GloFish.  These bioengineered zebrafish are available at pet stores throughout the United States (except in California). According to the GloFish website (, they were originally developed to help scientists detect environmental pollutants.  You can now have them in your home for about $5.00 each.


Cloning is another technique that has been explored by scientists. The sci-fi nature of creating a perfect replica, fully matured and indistinguishable from its parent makes cloning an interesting topic to consider. Of course, single-celled organisms are doing this all the time.

If you clone your dog or cat (pet), what results do you expect?

      1. Your new pet will probably look and act exactly the same as the parent.
      2. Your new pet will probably look exactly like the parent, but act differently.
      3. Your new pet will probably both look and act differently than the parent.
      4. Cloning a pet?! It can’t be done.

      Answer: 3. The new pet will probably both look and act differently than the parent.

      The first animal cloned from an adult somatic cell (one that is neither sperm nor egg) was Dolly the sheep.  Dolly had three mothers – one who donated her egg, another who donated her nucleus and a third into whom the embryo was implanted.  Dolly lived for about 6.5 years before being euthanized due to progressive arthritis and lung failure.

      In recent years, scientists have focused on epigenetic influences on the genome – highlighting the fact that the environment plays a role in determining gene expression. Therefore, the results of cloning an organism can be vastly varied. However, there are places out there willing to clone your pet…for a fee!

      Hopefully this quiz has served to highlight some of the interesting ways in which biotechnology has been employed, also reminding us that basic research has led to significant advances in scientific knowledge in a fairly short period of time.  Have fun discussing these examples!

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      Amy Prevost

      Amy Prevost

      Director, Scientific Courses at BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute
      Amy Prevost received her doctorate from UW-Madison in 2012 in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. Amy is a program director at the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute), a non-profit located on the Promega campus in Fitchburg, Wis., where she coordinates scientific programs for adult learners. She is also a project manager on a grant aimed at understanding student success in advanced manufacturing programs at two-year colleges with the Center on Education Research at UW Madison. Amy’s primary areas of interest in educational research include understanding educational pathways in STEM programs, improving student outcomes at the post-secondary and graduate levels – including access to careers, and trying to map elements of doctoral programs that contribute to students’ abilities to transfer knowledge.

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