Subfields of bioengineering

In my last post, I defined bioengineering as

the application of principles of biology and the tools of engineering to create usable, tangible, economically viable products

In this post, I want to take a high-level look at different subfields of bioengineering.

Probably the first subfield that you can think about is genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is all about direct gene manipulation - adding or removing genes. Closely related to it is synthetic biology. Also known as synbio, synthetic biology seeks to create new organisms or tweak existing organisms to do what we want them to do. Synbio is a rapidly growing field with big potential. All of those engineered microorganisms that produce food, drugs or biofuels can fall under synbio. This potential (or hype, depending on how you look at it) makes some people name synbio as the most important technology of the 21st century.

Not so far away from genetic engineering and synbio, we can find nanotechnology (also known as nanotech) - the manipulation of matter of atomic or molecular scale. Science fiction gave us the images of literally tiny robots tossing around atoms or molecules with their tiny robotic arms. Biology is already manipulating matter on an atomic scale with its own robots - cells, proteins, enzymes. Instead of reinventing those mechanisms, we can use them.

Next, let's dive into biomedical engineering. Biomedical engineering applies engineering principles and design concepts to medicine and biology for healthcare purposes. There is a lot of exciting things happening here. You can find here medical exoskeletons, implants and prosthetic limbs. Building medical equipment is here. We have tissue engineering here which works on new ways to improve or replace tissues (an interesting off-shot of it is cultured meat, also known as lab-grown meat). Neural engineering is where we find neural interfaces like Neuralink or "mind-controlled" machines are happening.

Bioinformatics is another rapidly growing and important field. Bioinformatics combines computer science, software engineering, mathematics and statistics to create tools to help us better understand biological data.

Agricultural engineering works on improving the efficiency and sustainability in agriculture. Genetically modified food falls into this category as well as more efficient ways to grow food like hydroponics, aquaponics or aeroponics.

If you are more interested in manufacturing or applying bioengineering on an industrial scale, bioprocess engineering might be something for you.

On a bigger scale, we have ecological engineering and environmental engineering. Both work on a bigger scale to predict, design, construct or restore, and manage ecosystems that integrate "human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both".

I want to point out that the subfields I listed in this post don't have clearly defined borders. Many of them overlap each other while some, like genetic engineering or bioinformatics, find a place in other subfields.

What about biotechnology?

One might ask "where does biotechnology fit into all of this?".

Wikipedia defines biotechnology as follows:

Biotechnology is the broad area of biology, involving living systems and organisms to develop or make products

Wikipedia also defines bioengineering as:

the application of principles of biology and the tools of engineering to create usable, tangible, economically viable products

I don't see big differences between these two definitions.

Checking Merriam-Webster dictionary also gives very similar definitions.


the manipulation (as through genetic engineering) of living organisms or their components to produce useful usually commercial products (such as pest-resistant crops, new bacterial strains, or novel pharmaceuticals)


the application of engineering principles, practices, and technologies to the fields of medicine and biology especially in solving problems and improving care (as in the design of medical devices and diagnostic equipment or the creation of biomaterials and pharmaceuticals)

The only difference is that bioengineering emphasises the usage of tools of engineering. And that's all. Other than that, both terms could be used interchangeably.

Where will I specialise?

I don't want to too heavily specialise in any field of bioengineering. I defined myself as a bioengineer as someone who cleverly applies the laws governing living organisms to create usable and economically viable products.

I see each subfield as a source of useful tools I can learn and apply whenever I need them.

Nature does not care about our definitions and categories. Nature just is. I apply the same philosophy to bioengineering.