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What are bioreactors and how do they work?

Bioreactors are complex systems, designed to imitate the natural production of biomolecules. A typical bioreactor system is made up of:

A vessel, in which there are living cells and all the biochemical reactions occur
A control unit, which controls all of the parameters that are essential to the cells (O2, CO2, nutrients, temperature, mixing, ...)
Auxiliary components and equipment that connect the other two and enable the whole system to function: stirrer shafts and impellers (inside the vessel), tubing, sensors and probes, gassing equipment, stands, electrical systems, …

The whole system functions as an organism, producing our desired product under specific conditions.

Types of bioreactors

Bioreactors come in different types, categorised by different physical attributes:

  • vessel volumes,
  • reusability of the vessel; it can be either sterilisable (in autoclave) or single-use, and
  • the number of vessels per control unit.

Depending on the size of production, we can divide bioreactors into three scales:

  • Laboratory-scale, from 0.5 to 10 L
  • Pilot-scale, from 50 to 200 L
  • Industrial-scale, from 500 to 5000 L

Different types of bioreactors

The type of bioreactor also depends on what molecule will be produced with it and what cell line and other components you use for that production. Each bioreactor system is fitted with accessories mentioned above (tubing, sensors, probes, stirrers), again depending on the type of bioprocess or production.

For more information on specific bioreactors, you can check out our arsenal of different bioreactor types.

What are biomolecules?

In short, biomolecules are numerous substances produced by cells or living organisms. These can be found everywhere in different sizes and structures, performing different functions.
There are four major types of biomolecules. These are carbohydrates, proteins, nucleic acids and lipids, also known as the four biomolecules of life. They build together everything that is alive, thus being the most important building blocks of our planet.

What are bioreactors used for?

Now we know that there are different types of bioreactors that are used for different types of biomolecules. But what are the specific biomolecules that we produce using bioreactors? What is the actual product a consumer can buy that was produced in a bioreactor?
As seen in the previous paragraph, the broad definition of biomolecules encompasses pretty much everything that exists. But the products we actually use are a bit more precise and defined.
Bioreactors are used in the food, medical, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Each of these produces certain types of biomolecules, depending on the use of the final product. Some are also produced in the form of complex products, while others remain molecules.

Food industry

In the food industry, bioreactors are used mainly for fermentation and are referred to as fermenters. A fermentor is basically a type of bioreactor, used specifically for fermentation. Products, in this case, are complex and consisting of many different biomolecules. Some examples of fermented products are kefir, kombucha and, of course, beer.

Medical and pharmaceutical industries

Perhaps the most important use of bioreactors is for production of pharmaceutical and medical compounds.
About 23% of the global pharmaceutical drug market are biologics or biologic drugs. These are pharmaceuticals, produced with animal and plant cells or microorganisms, which gives them the name “biopharmaceuticals”.

An image of two pills.

An image of two pills.

Biologics are:

  • vaccines,
  • blood,
  • blood components,
  • cells,
  • allergens,
  • genes,
  • tissues (for tissue engineering),
  • recombinant proteins

Depending on which of these products is being produced, the organisms or cell lines that produce them are chosen. Popular cell cultures, cultured in bioreactors, are mammalian cell lines (e.g. Chinese Hamster Ovary cells - CHO), microbial cell lines (e.g. E. Coli), yeast cell lines (e.g. Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and insect cell lines (e.g. Spodoptera frugiperda-derived ovarian cells - Sf9).

Cosmetic industry

The prevalent types of cells used in cosmetics are plant cells. They are cultivated in specific bioreactors called photobioreactors, which prioritize two parameters: exposure to light and water.
Plant parts and tissues are a preferred ingredient in some cosmetics, as some of their secondary metabolites have positive effects on the human skin. The cells are cultivated from a single piece of wounded plant tissue that starts to form a callus (a mass of rapidly growing and unorganized cells). Once scaled up and with enough biomass produced, the cells are treated accordingly, with the goal to extract all the useful compounds used for the final cosmetic product.

To sum up

A bioreactor is a complex system, designed to produce compounds and substances with the help of cells or whole organisms. These compounds are then used as finished products, such as beer, or are treated in additional processing steps in order to get an isolated compound such as vaccines or proteins.
Bioreactors are used in many industries, mainly for food, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

A close-up of a bioreactor vessel with a spinning agitator.

A close-up of a bioreactor vessel with a spinning agitator.


Size of the global chemical drugs and biologics pharmaceutical market from 2014 to 2023 (

Bioreactors - Introduction to chemical and biological engineering (

Encyclopædia Britannica: Biomolecule (

Bioprocessing: Bioreactors in Bioprocessing (

UKEssays, Bioreactor Types and Applications (

Biologics (Biologic Drug Class) (

The Nature of Skincare

Cell and Tissue Reaction Engineering. Principles and Practice: Insect Cell-Based Recombinant Protein Production (

Bioengineered, Production of biopharmaceutical proteins by yeast

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