The Colors of Biotechnology; What do they mean?

Due to the rapid expansion of biotechnology and the vast range of fields, a color-coded system has been developed to easily identify the primary areas of biotechnological research. This article aims to describe this classification system and highlight how it is used today.


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The United Nations Convention of Biological Diversity defines Biotechnology as ‘any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use’. With such a broad definition, a clear classification system is important to help easily distinguish between different areas. There are four major areas of biotechnology represented as white, green, blue, and red.

White biotechnology: Industrial

White biotechnology is arguably the largest area of biotechnology. It revolves primarily around the use of biocatalysts for the industrial-scale production and processing of products. There is also a focus on reducing the environmental impact of industrial processes, involving the production of biodegradable polymers and renewable fuel to encourage a more sustainable system.

Red biotechnology: Medicine and human health

Red biotechnology also referred to as biopharmaceuticals, involves the use of biotechnology in the medical field. This is often in, but not limited to, the pharmaceutical industry. Red biotechnology covers applications of biotechnology relating to clinical trials, vaccine development, disease research, antibiotic production, drug development, and molecular diagnostics.

Red biotechnology, along with white biotechnology, is one of the largest branches with the most public interest. The future of red biotechnology is likely to involve the expansion of genetics-focused areas such as gene therapy and regenerative medicine.

Green biotechnology: Agriculture

Green biotechnology plays a key role in the increased production of food to meet the demand of an increasing population, as well as in developing less environmentally damaging fertilizers and biopesticides. Many techniques are utilized in green biotechnology, from tissue cultivation, micropropagation, marker-assisted selection, and reverse breeding to genetic engineering.

The genetic modification of plants could be considered one of the most important advancements in the field of agriculture, allowing the production of crops that can tolerate a range of adverse environmental conditions, show resistance to insects and herbicides, as well as produce increased yields.

Although genetic modification of food products has been the subject of some controversy, it still plays a huge part in the agricultural industry.

Blue biotechnology: Marine

Considering that the vast majority of biodiversity is found in the ocean, blue biotechnology aims to utilize this to develop new products to benefit both society and the environment. Marine organisms have important roles in the production of many enzymes and proteins that have been used in numerous applications, from biodegradable plastics to medicinal products.

Given that much of the Earth’s oceans have not been fully explored, there is huge potential for the discovery of new organisms with novel uses. A key marine organism currently being investigated is algae, which can produce bioactive compounds under controlled culture conditions, with the potential to be used in drug development.

Other colors

Although the aforementioned categories are considered to be the most established, other areas have also been assigned colors. Yellow biotechnology refers to biotechnology used to improve nutrition. Closely linked to green biotechnology, yellow biotechnology aims to utilize enzymatic and microbial processes, as well as genetic modification, to improve the nutritional content of foods.

Grey biotechnology heavily focuses on environmental preservation and contaminant removal, whist brown biotechnology involves the use and management of desert land. Smaller branches include gold biotechnology, primarily bioinformatics, violet biotechnology, relating to patents and law, and dark biotechnology, associated with biological weapons and bioterrorism.

As biotechnology as a whole is such a broad and varied field, the color code offers a simple classification system that allows similar areas of biotechnology to be grouped together. This makes searching for articles or news about a particular area easier, as it reduces the need for multiple specific keywords.

For example, when searching for articles or papers on advances in health-related biotechnology, a search for ‘red biotechnology’ may return more relevant results in one go than multiple searches using specific keywords such as health, medicine, vaccines, and pharmaceuticals.

Although widely used, the color code is not definitive and different authors and institutions may use slight variations. Although there are definite benefits to such system, there is definitely room for improvement. To be most effective, it would be beneficial to support an official color code, with properly defined categories, to minimize confusion caused by different adaptations of the code.

There is also some degree of debate as to whether certain colors are truly representative of their relative sectors, however, the colors themselves are mostly arbitrary and serve only as a simple and easily recognizable label. If this could be more widely agreed on and made uniform across different organizations, the color-coding system could become an increasingly valuable tool.


  • Barcelos, MCS., Lupki, FB., Campolina, GA., Nelson, DL., Molina, G. (2018). The colors of biotechnology: general overview and developments of white, green, and blue areas. FEMS Microbiology Letters, 365. [doi: 10.1093/femsle/fny239]
  • Kafarski, P. (2012). Rainbow code of biotechnology. Chemik. 66, 814-816.
  • United Nations (1992). Convention on Biological Diversity. 1760 U.N.T.S.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Oct 5, 2021

Morgan Rustidge

Written by

Morgan Rustidge

Morgan completed her BSc in Genetics at the University of Sheffield in 2019, fuelled initially by an interest in genetic diseases. As part of her undergraduate degree, she also studied aspects of Microbiology, Molecular Biology, and Biochemistry.


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