From time to time I translate public relations documents on progress in science and technology

From time to time I translate public relations documents on progress in science and technology. During this occupation I am afraid my thinking wanders off along unexplored tracks. When I first came across the term ’white biotechnology’, I had a vision of a group of skinhead biotechnologists trying to rid the world of blue-green algae. I was totally wrong, of course: five minutes searching online showed me that white biotech is defined as both the application of biotechnology to the process industry for the production of plastics, catalysts, solvents and other useful products, and its application to break down unwanted waste products or spills. Why white? Is this type of biotech the great white hope, a white knight, or a white elephant? One suspects the term is just an attempt to spin, a PR creation with echoes of soap powder marketing. It’s certainly an improvement on the earlier ’grey biotech’, a choice of name with dingy overtones: think Northern England in winter, wet and cold; and definitely washing with the wrong type of soap powder. 

The biotech colours don’t stop there: we also have blue, green, red and violet. Although blue biotechnology is not often used, it seems it is the application and manipulation of marine and aquatic organisms to create new products, to engineer plants that are resistant to environmental conditions and to monitor environmental pollutants in water.  

Green biotechnology is the application to agriculture, but it’s not the province of tree huggers and the like. You search in vain for the breakdown of pollutants or cleanup of waste sites; they live in the white drawer. Green biotechnology often involves the genetic modification of plants, thus giving rise to the vision of headlines like ’Sour greens: Green party opposes green biotechnology’! 

What could red biotechnology be? A movement with a motto: ’DNA of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains’? The production of red herrings for spinmeisters discussing government policies? Actually, it’s shorthand to describe biotech’s medical applications. 

Violet biotechnology is supposedly used to signify the socio-economic effects and legal aspects of the technology, not, as I originally imagined, the nickname of Violet, a young woman working in the biotech lab. A typical use of violet biotechnology would be to describe the pending approval by the EU of BASF’s genetically modified starch producing potato (see Chemistry World, January 2007, p14).  

A 2005 editorial in the Electronic Journal of Biotechnology  suggested even more fanciful hues, none of which seem to have caught on: yellow for nutrition science (custard?); brown for arid zone or desert biotech; gold for bioinformatics and nanobiotech; and ’dark’, to denote bioterrorism, biowarfare, or anticrop warfare. It was at this point that the room started to spin. I wondered why there could not be an orange biotechnology for Dutch industry, indigo biotech for jeans’ manufacture, rainbow biotechnology with a pot of gold at its end or a black and white version for use in making humbugs.  

I suspect this whole activity is a PR gag to pull coloured wool over our eyes. The classification of chemistry into various areas: analytical, applied, clinical, inorganic, organic and physical chemistry has the great advantage that one can recognise immediately how any topic relates to one’s area of knowledge without having to check out a somewhat ambiguous colour chart. Is biotechnological production of aspirin in water from waste willow shavings, red - pharmacy, green - agricultural or white - chemical production or is it blue after all? Sorry team, no way! Life is complicated enough for the poor translator and reader of your efforts. Just ’keep it simple, stupid’ and the world will be a better place.  

Neil Forsyth