Biotechnology uses biological systems for manufacturing or processing practical products. Using yeast to make bread and cheese might be considered early biotechnology, but modern biotechnology began with the development of recombinant DNA and gene-splicing. From gene-splicing to genetically modified organisms to gene therapy, applications of biotechnology now extend beyond medicine into information systems, industrial applications and agriculture. These fields offer many potential biotechnology project topics for students.
Natural Biologic Processes
Biotechnology takes advantage of nature's many adaptations. Yeast and other micro-organisms transform milk to cheese, for example. Enzymes change one material to another. Catalysts trigger reactions without taking part in the reaction. Fireflies, dinoflagellates, jellyfish and some fungi all use bioluminescent light, generating light through chemical reactions rather than electricity. Plants use biologic poisons to prevent competition for water, soil and space.
Simple Biotechnology Projects
These simple biotechnology projects provide opportunities to explore some biotechnology techniques.
Create artisan cheese, yogurt, vinegar or bread using traditional or contemporary methods. Build on these technologies to improve the product.
Test foods for milk sugars (lactose) using the enzyme lactase to test for glucose, a byproduct of the lactase reaction with lactose. Glucose test strips read the amount of glucose, which relates back to the amount of lactose in the solution. Using this technique, test a variety of foods for milk sugar, especially foods labelled as dairy-free.
Use gelatin as a test for freshness in pineapple. An enzyme in pineapple prevents the proteins in gelatin from setting. Cooking or processing pineapple destroys this enzyme. If gelatin sets after pineapple is added, the pineapple isn't fresh.
Extract plant dyes and use as art paints or to dye fabrics. Many of these dyes fade or wash out quickly, which is why modern paints usually are petroleum-based. What can be done to improve or "fix" plant dyes?
Extract DNA from plant materials. Several methods exist, from simply extraction to view the DNA to more complex electrophoresis to separate DNA into pieces. Comparison of the pattern of pieces allows identification of DNA.
Using a commercially available kit, splice bioluminescent genes into benign bacteria to create glow-in-the-dark bacteria.
Biotechnology Science Fair Projects
Science fair projects require exploring and experimenting to evaluate a question that does not have an answer you can simply research. Even a negative outcome is acceptable, as long as the scientific methodology and analysis are accurate. Starting with a known method and exploring beyond offers many opportunities for biotechnology project topics for students.
Food Biotechnology Project Topics
How can traditional techniques for making cheese, yogurt, bread or vinegar be used in other applications?
Use the lactose-lactase reaction as a starting point. How else could this reaction be used? Milk plastic is a renewable, biodegradable product. Could milk plastic be improved for commercial use, then biodegraded using lactase?
Enzymes can be used to transform algae or plant material into biofuels. Could the pineapple enzyme be used for this process? What other enzymes could be used? What other enzyme processes could be done with fresh pineapple juice?
Agricultural Biotechnology Project Topics
The use of biotechnology in agriculture has faced a great deal of resistance due to concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) entering the environment and also potential long-term effects on those who eat GMO foods. However, most food crops and animals have already been modified by selective breeding. Many agricultural biotechnology projects focus on increasing yield, decreasing pesticide dependence and accessing more challenging environments. Projects in agricultural biotechnology offer a range of possibilities. However, very strict science fair rules govern the use of animals due to concerns about the ethical treatment of those animals.
Not all cotton plants produce white cotton. Use selective breeding to enhance naturally occurring colored cotton. Or, use gene isolation and selection to accelerate the process. Perhaps use gene splicing to introduce bioluminescent color to the white cotton genome.
Isolate the natural insect-repellent found in many plants. Create an environmentally friendly insect repellent. Could this product be used in paints to prevent termite intrusion? Or, develop a safe alternative to chemical repellents for people, pets or homes. Can the genes for these natural insect repellents be gene-spliced into other plants to increase insect resistance without compromising crop yield or quality? Test the safety of these natural alternatives.
Use gene-splicing to increase flower production or crop yield.
Certain viruses caused stripes and variegations in tulips and lilies, but over several generations destroyed the bulbs. Aphids carry these viruses from plant to plant. Modern striped tulips were developed using selective breeding. Can the virus-infected tulips be cross-bred or genetically engineered to maintain the variegations without destroying the bulbs or cross-contaminating other tulips?
Biotechnology Project Topics Using Bioluminescence
Naturally bioluminescent plants and animals offer a variety of interesting possibilities that have not yet reached the commercial market.
Some ideas from Popular Mechanics include bioluminescent candy and drinks, street sign lighting and bioluminescent trees, "smart" foods whose bioluminescent colors change in response to the health of the plant, water quality testing, medical tracers and marker lights for helicopters. While not all of these may be practical as biotechnology projects for high school students, changing them slightly opens up possibilities. For example, rather than bioluminescent trees, perhaps bioluminescent grass to line sidewalks or bioluminescent markers for steps. While concerns about GMOs may limit the market for bioluminescent candy or drinks, you could use bioluminescent materials in the insulating layer between clear layers in a cup, so that the cup glows.
Another possibility involves art. Extract different bioluminescent colors and incorporate the colors in flowers or other plants. Splice the genes into plants to add another dimension to natural dyes and paints.
- Science Buddies: I Love Ice Cream, But It Doesn't Love Me: Understanding Lactose Intolerance
- Science Buddies: Turn Plants Into Biofuel with the Power of Enzymes
- Dublin City University: What is Biotechnology?
- Encyclopaedia Britannica: Biotechnology
- Norwegian University of Science and Technology: What is Biotechnology?
- US Department of Agriculture: Biotechnology
- Next Generation Science Standards: Biotechnology Lesson Plans
- Lone Star College: High School Biotechnology Handbook
- Carleton College: DNA Extraction
- Popular Mechanics: 6 Bright Ideas for Bioluminescence Tech
- Labiotech.eu: Review-The Emerging Field of Bioluminescence
- Biocurious: Projects-Bioluminescence
- Virology Blog: Tulips Broken by Viruses
About the Author
Karen earned her Bachelor of Science in geology. She worked as a geologist for ten years before returning to school to earn her multiple subject teaching credential. Karen taught middle school science for over two decades, earning her Master of Arts in Science Education (emphasis in 5-12 geosciences) along the way. Karen now designs and teaches science and STEAM classes.