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IGD Biotech glossary, 1998

This glossary was produced by the IGD for use within the industry. It aimed to ensure consistency in communication with consumers, which was particularly important in the brief period before EU regulations defined the precise wording required on food packages. The IGD also instigated a voluntary code of practice for labelling GM food, which the majority of UK food producers and retailers signed up to.





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Glossary of terms

This glossary of terms was compiled by the Institute of Grocery Distribution Biotechnology Advisory Working Group to encourage consistency in literature aimed at consumers. The definitions were coined for use of the terms in the context of biotechnology. Words in bold type are defined in the glossary.



A common soil bacterium that can naturally carry genetic information (DNA) into plant cells. Often used in genetic modification

Amino acid

Building blocks of proteins.


A substance, naturally produced by a micro-organism, capable of preventing the growth of other micro-organisms, particularly bacteria.

Bacterium (pl. bacteria)

An organism consisting of one simple cell. Bacteria occur naturally almost everywhere on earth including soil, skin, on plants and many foods.


A component of the DNA molecule. There are four different bases in DNA and, for short, they are called A, C, T and G. These are the four letters of the genetic alphabet that make the language of the genetic code.

Biological process

A process which involves a reaction normally carried out in a living organism.


The industrial use of biological processes to produce products.


The smallest structural unit of all living organisms that ran survive independently.


A string of many genes. Each chromosome is a densely coiled molecule of DNA and looks like a tiny thread when observed with a microscope.


An enzyme that causes milk proteins to clump together during cheese making.


Producing large numbers of identical cells or organisms from a single ancestor. Taking cuttings of a plant is a common form of cloning.

Copy gene

This refers to an exact copy of the DNA of a desired gene which can then be transferred into the recipient organism.


This is short for deoxydbonucleic acid. DNA contains the information which determines the structure of proteins. This information is in the form of the genetic code and is determined by the sequence of the four bases.

Double helix

The three-dimensional structure of DNA, in which two strands are coiled in a helix (spiral shape).


Proteins that regulate the chemical reactions inside every living cell and organism. For example, saliva contains an enzyme (called amylase) that helps us to digest the starch in ourfood.


The appearance of a particular characteristic specified by a gene, for example , flower colour.


A segment of DNA, carrying genetic instructions to make one protein, like a recipe.

Gene construct

A sequence of DNA artificially constructed by genetic engineering, like altering an existing recipe.

Gene technology

See genetic modification.

Genetic code

The sequence of bases in DNA which provides the information necessary for a given amino acid.

Genetic diversity

The huge variety in DNA sequences found in different organisms, which is responsible for the huge variety of plants and animals in the world.

Genetic engineering

See genetic modification.

Genetic manipulation

See genetic modification.

Genetic modification

Preferred term to describe a series of techniques used to transfer the genes from one organism to another or to alter the expression of an organism’s genes. For example genetic modification can be used to make a plant produce a completely new protein or prevent it from producing a protein.

Genetic marker

Sequence of DNA that can be easily identified and which therefore can be used as a reference point for mapping other genes.


The genetic make-up of an individual organism.


Genetically modified organism.


Weed killer (a compound that is used to kill plants that are pests).


The transfer of genetic information from parents to their offspring by reproduction, for example leaf shape and petal colour.

Marker gene

A gene which is used to identify and select organisms in which genetic modification has been successful. For example, a genetically modified plant resistant to antibiotics. This plant will grow on a culture containing the antibiotic while a non-modified plant would not.

Microbe / Micro-organism

Any organism that can be seen only with the aid of a microscope e.g. a bacterium.


The structure within cells that contains the DNA.


A living plant, animal or microbe.


A legal protection of a new invention for a limited period of time in return for revealing the information.


The outward appearance of an organism which results from the interaction of both genetic and environmental effects. For example, a plant with genes for tallness will actually be small if not given adequate water or heat.


A small self-replicating ring of DNA found in many bacteria and some yeasts. They are widely used in genetic modification because they are able to pass easily from one cell to another.


A molecule composed of many amino acids. There are many types of protein with a range of functions. Proteins are important as enzymes. Egg white is almost pure protein.


Ribonucleic acid. A similar molecule to DNA but with a slightly different structure. Plays an intermediary role in converting the information contained in DNA into proteins. RNA carries the genetic information from DNA to those parts of the cell where proteins are made.


A group of organisms which are capable of interbreeding to produce viable offspring.


An organism containing genetic material artificially placed there from another organism by the technique of genetic modification.


Living matter, e.g. cells, DNA molecules, that is capable of replication.