Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What is Biotechnology and its History

What is Biotechnology?

Pamela Peters, from Biotechnology: A Guide To Genetic Engineering. Wm. C. Brown Publishers, Inc., 1993.

Biotechnology is technology based on biology, especially when used in agriculture, food science, and medicine. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity defines biotechnology as

Biotechnology in one form or another has flourished since prehistoric times. When the first human beings realized that they could plant their own crops and breed their own animals, they learned to use biotechnology. The discovery that fruit juices fermented into wine, or that milk could be converted into cheese or yogurt, or that beer could be made by fermenting solutions of malt and hops began the study of biotechnology. When the first bakers found that they could make a soft, spongy bread rather than a firm, thin cracker, they were acting as fledgling biotechnologists. The first animal breeders, realizing that different physical traits could be either magnified or lost by mating appropriate pairs of animals, engaged in the manipulations of biotechnology.

What then is biotechnology? The term brings to mind many different things. Some think of developing new types of animals. Others dream of almost unlimited sources of human therapeutic drugs. Still others envision the possibility of growing crops that are more nutritious and naturally pest-resistant to feed a rapidly growing world population. This question elicits almost as many first-thought responses as there are people to whom the question can be posed.

In its purest form, the term "biotechnology" refers to the use of living organisms or their products to modify human health and the human environment. Prehistoric biotechnologists did this as they used yeast cells to raise bread dough and to ferment alcoholic beverages, and bacterial cells to make cheeses and yogurts and as they bred their strong, productive animals to make even stronger and more productive offspring.

Throughout human history, we have learned a great deal about the different organisms that our ancestors used so effectively. The marked increase in our understanding of these organisms and their cell products gains us the ability to control the many functions of various cells and organisms. Using the techniques of gene splicing and recombinant DNA technology, we can now actually combine the genetic elements of two or more living cells. Functioning lengths of DNA can be taken from one organism and placed into the cells of another organism. As a result, for example, we can cause bacterial cells to produce human molecules. Cows can produce more milk for the same amount of feed. And we can synthesize therapeutic molecules that have never before existed.


The most practical use of biotechnology, which is still present today, is the cultivation of plants to produce food suitable to humans. Agriculture has been theorized to have become the dominant way of producing food since the Neolithic Revolution. The processes and methods of agriculture have been refined by other mechanical and biological sciences since its inception. Through early biotechnology farmers were able to select the best suited and highest-yield crops to produce enough food to support a growing population. Other uses of biotechnology were required as crops and fields became increasingly large and difficult to maintain. Specific organisms and organism byproducts were used to fertilize, restore nitrogen, and control pests. Throughout the use of agriculture farmers have inadvertently altered the genetics of their crops through introducing them to new environments and breeding them with other plants--one of the first forms of biotechnology. Cultures such as those in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India developed the process of brewing beer. It is still done by the same basic method of using malted grains (containing enzymes) to convert starch from grains into sugar and then adding specific yeasts to produce beer. In this process the carbohydrates in the grains were broken down into alcohols such as ethanol. Ancient Indians also used the juices of the plant Ephedra Vulgaris and used to call it Soma. Later other cultures produced the process of Lactic acid fermentation which allowed the fermentation and preservation of other forms of food. Fermentation was also used in this time period to produce leavened bread. Although the process of fermentation was not fully understood until Louis Pasteur’s work in 1857, it is still the first use of biotechnology to convert a food source into another form.

Combinations of plants and other organisms were used as medications in many early civilizations. Since as early as 200 BC, people began to use disabled or minute amounts of infectious agents to immunize themselves against infections. These and similar processes have been refined in modern medicine and have led to many developments such as antibiotics, vaccines, and other methods of fighting sickness.

In the early twentieth century scientists gained a greater understanding of microbiology and explored ways of manufacturing specific products. In 1917, Chaim Weizmann first used a pure microbiological culture in an industrial process, that of manufacturing corn starch using Clostridium acetobutylicum to produce acetone, which the United Kingdom desperately needed to manufacture explosives during World War I.

The field of modern biotechnology is thought to have largely begun on June 16, 1980, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that a genetically-modified microorganism could be patented in the case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty. Indian-born Ananda Chakrabarty, working for General Electric, had developed a bacterium (derived from the Pseudomonas genus) capable of breaking down crude oil, which he proposed to use in treating oil spills.

Revenue in the industry is expected to grow by 12.9% in 2008. Another factor influencing the biotechnology sector's success is improved intellectual property rights legislation -- and enforcement -- worldwide, as well as strengthened demand for medical and pharmaceutical products to cope with an ageing, and ailing, U.S. population .

Rising demand for biofuels is expected to be good news for the biotechnology sector, with the Department of Energy estimating ethanol usage could reduce U.S. petroleum-derived fuel consumption by up to 30% by 2030. The biotechnology sector has allowed the U.S. farming industry to rapidly increase its supply of corn and soybeans -- the main inputs into biofuels -- by developing genetically-modified seeds which are resistant to pests and drought. By boosting farm productivity, biotechnology plays a crucial role in ensuring that biofuel production targets are met.

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