Ann Murphy
Tallahassee, FL

Judi Perrella
Tampa, FL

Overview and Brief History

Biotechnology seems to be leading a sudden new biological revolution. It has brought us to the brink of a world of "engineered" products that are based in the natural world rather than on chemical and industrial processes. Biotechnology has been described as "Janus-faced". This implies that there are two sides. On one, techniques allow DNA to be manipulated to move genes from one organism to another. On the other, it involves relatively new technologies whose consequences are untested and should be met with caution. The term biotechnology was coined in 1919 by Karl Ereky, an Hungarian engineer. At that time, the term meant all the lines of work by which products are produced from raw materials with the aid of living organisms. Ereky envisioned a biochemical age similar to the stone and iron ages. (Bud, 1989)

A common misconception among teachers is the thought that biotechnology only includes DNA and genetic engineering. To keep students abreast of current knowledge, teachers sometimes have emphasized the techniques of DNA science as the "end-and-all" of biotechnology. This trend has also led to a misunderstanding in the general populous. Biotechnology is NOT new. Man has been manipulating living things to solve problems and improve his way of life for millennia.

Early agriculture concentrated on producing food. Plants and animals were selectively bred and microorganisms were used to make food items such as beverages, cheese and bread.

The late eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century saw the advent of vaccinations, crop rotation involving leguminous crops, and animal drawn machinery.

The end of the nineteenth century was a milestone of biology. Microorganisms were discovered, Mendel's work on genetics was accomplished, and institutes for investigating fermentation and other microbial processes were established by Koch, Pasteur, and Lister.

Biotechnology at the beginning of the twentieth century began to bring industry and agriculture together. During World War I, fermentation processes were developed that produced acetone from starch and paint solvents for the rapidly growing automobile industry. Work in the 1930s was geared toward using surplus agricultural products to supply industry instead of imports or petrochemicals. The advent of World War II brought the manufacture of penicillin. The biotechnical focus moved to pharmaceuticals. The "cold war" years were dominated by work with microorganisms in preparation for biological warfare as well as antibiotics and fermentation processes. (Goodman, 1987)

Biotechnology is currently being used in many areas including agriculture, bioremediation, food processing, and energy production. DNA fingerprinting is becoming a common practice in forensics. Similar techniques were used recently to identify the bones of the last Czar of Russia and several members of his family. Production of insulin and other medicines is accomplished through cloning of vectors that now carry the chosen gene. Immunoassays are used not only in medicine for drug level and pregnancy testing, but also by farmers to aid in detection of unsafe levels of pesticides, herbicides and toxins on crops and in animal products. These assays also provide rapid field tests for industrial chemicals in ground water, sediment, and soil. In agriculture, genetic engineering is being used to produce plants that are resistant to insects, weeds and plant diseases.

A current agricultural controversy involves the tomato.  A recent article in the New Yorker magazine (Seabrook, 1993) compares the discovery of the edible tomato that came about by early biotechnology with the new "Flavr-savr" tomato brought about through modern techniques. In the very near future, you will be given the opportunity to bite into the Flavr Savr tomato, the first food created by the use of recombinant DNA ever to go on sale. What will you think as you raise the tomato to your mouth? Will you hesitate? This moment may be for you as it was for Robert Gibbon Johnson in 1820 on the steps of the courthouse in Salem, New Jersey. Prior to this moment, the tomato was widely believed to be poisonous. As a large crowd watched, Johnson consumed two tomatoes and changed forever the human-tomato relationship. Since that time man has sought to produce the supermarket tomato with "that back-yard flavor." Americans also want that tomato available year-round. New biotechnological techniques have permitted scientists to manipulate desired traits. Prior to the advancement of the methods of recombinant DNA, scientists were limited to the techniques of their time - cross-pollination, selective breeding, pesticides, and herbicides. Today's biotechnology has its "roots" in chemistry, physics, and biology . The explosion of the techniques have resulted in three major branches: genetic engineering, diagnostic techniques, and cell/tissue techniques.

While this module contains many items involving new techniques that emphasize DNA science, the user should keep in mind that DNA manipulation is but the latest tool commonly available to biotechnologists during this revolution.



In order to help teachers and students study how present biotechnology has evolved, a timeline is included referencing major scientists and major events in history which have led to our current understanding and use.


Grade 7 life science through Grade 12 AP biology


Minimum of one period


Depends upon use of timeline




Depends upon use of timeline


Uses of timeline:

  1. Lecture or class discussion.
  2. Reading assignment or student reports. Students could research individual scientists or discoveries.
  3. Students could graph on adding machine tape or graph paper taped together.
  4. Students could use Timeliner computer software (90 Sherman St., Cambridge, MA 02140; 800-342-0236), designed by Thomas F.F. Snyder & David Kaemmer (1986). Tom Snyder Productions.
  5. Students could add significant historical events to timeline.
  6. Teacher could work with social studies teacher to develop lesson to help students understand how science, history and technology impact each other.
  7. Use videotapes, laserdiscs, books or periodicals to historical figures and events to support evidence given in timeline.
  8. A series of analysis questions could be given to students with one of the above assignments. Sample questions are:
    • Link the significance of one discovery to previous discoveries. What prior knowledge was needed to make the discovery?
    • How does "newness" of biotechnology compare to the age of the earth?
    • Which scientists were involved in explaining what genes do? What did each contribute?
    • Which diagnostic tools were needed for each of the discoveries?


Micklos, 1990; NABT, 1992; Bud, 1989; Torrey, 1985; Goodman, 1987; Seabrook, 1993

Prior to 1750:
Plants used for food

Animals used for food andto do work

Plants domesticated, selectively bred for desired characteristics

Microorganisms used to make cheese, beverages, and bread by fermentation
1797: Edward Jenner Used living microorganisms to protect people from disease
Increased cultivation of leguminous crops and crop rotations to increase yield and land use
Animal drawn machines
Horse drawn harrows, seed drills, corn planters, horse hoes, 2-row cultivators, hay mowers, and rakes Industrially processed animal feed and inorganic fertilizer
1859: Charles Darwin Hypothesized that animal and plant populations adapt over time to best fit the environment
1864: Louis Pasteur Proved existence of microorganisms Showed that all living things are produced by other living things
1865: Gregor Mendel Investigated how traits are passed from generation to generation - called them factors
1869: Johann Meischer Isolated DNA from the nuclei of white blood cells
Steam engine to drive combine harvesters
Ammonia synthesis
Self-propelled tractor
1893: Koch, Pasteur Fermentation process patented

Lister Institutes Diphtheria antitoxin isolated
1902: Walter Sutton Coined the term "gene" Proposed that chromosomes carry genes (factors which Mendel said that could be passed from generation to generation)
Artificial "silks" developed
1910: Thomas H. Morgan Proved that genes are carried on chromosomes "Biotechnology" term coined
Germans Use acetone produced by plants to make bombs

Yeast grown in large quantities for animal and glycerol

Made activated sludge for sewage treatment process
Boom of rayon industry
1927: Herman Mueller Increased mutation rate in fruit flies by exposing them to x-rays
1928: Frederick Griffiths Noticed that a rough kind of bacterium changed to a smooth type when unknown "transforming principle" from smooth type was present
1928: Alexander Fleming Discovered antibiotic properties of certain molds
Plant hybridization
Proteins and DNA studied by x-ray crystallography

Term 'molecular biology" coined
1941: George Beadle Proposed "one gene, one enzyme" hypothesis

Edward Tatum
1943-1953:Linus Pauling Described sickle cell anemia calling it a molecular disease Cortisone made in large amounts

DNA is identified as the genetic material
1944: Oswald Avery Performed transformation experiment with Griffith's bacterium
1945: Max Delbruck Organized course to study a type of bacterial virus that consists of a protein coat containing DNA
Penicillin produced

Transition from animal power to mechanical power on farms
1950: Erwin Chargaff Determined that there is always a ratio of 1:1 adenine to thymine in DNA of many different organisms

Artificial insemination of livestock
1952:Alfred Hershey Used radioactive labeling to determine that it is the
Margaret Chase DNA not protein which carries the instructions for assembling new phages
1953: James Watson Determined the double helix structure of DNA

Francis Crick
1956: Dangr Sequenced insulin (protein) from pork
1957: Francis Crick Explained how DNA functions to make protein

George Gamov
1958: Coenberg Discovered DNA polymerase
Isolation of m-RNA
Classification of the plasmids
1966: Marshall Nirenberg Determined that a sequence of three nucleotide

Severo Ochoa bases determine each of 20 amino acids
Isolation of reverse transcriptase
Discovery of restriction enzymes
1972: Paul Berg Cut sections of viral DNA and bacterial DNA with same restriction enzyme

Spliced viral DNA to the bacterial DNA
1973: Stanley Cohen Produced first recombinant DNA organism

Herbert Boyer Beginning of genetic engineering
Moratorium on recombinant DNA techniques
National Institute of Health guidelines developed for study of recombinant DNA
First practical application of genetic engineering

human growth hormone produced by bacterial cells
1978: Genentech, Inc. Genetic engineering techniques used to produce human insulin in E. coli

First biotech company on NY stock exchange

Stanford University First successful transplantation of mammalian gene

Discoverers of restriction enzymes receive Nobel Prize in medicine
1979: Genentech, Inc. Produce human growth hormone and two kinds of interferon DNA from malignant cells transformed a strain of cultured mouse cells - new tool for analyzing cancer genes
US. Supreme Court decided that manmade microbes could be patented
1983: Genetech, Inc. Licensed Eli Lily to make insulin

First transfer of foreign gene in plants
Plants can be patented
First field trials of DNA recombinant plants resistant to insects, viruses, bacteria
First living mammal was patented
Flavr savr tomatoes sold to public

Murphy/Perrella References for Overview and Timeline

  1. Micklos, D.A. & Freyer, G. A., DNA Science: A First Course in Recombinant DNA Technology. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory & Carolina Biological Supply Company. 477 pp. Available from: Cabisco Biotechnology, 2700 York R., Burlington, NC 27215; 800-3345551 or 800-632-1231 (NC only).

  2. NABT Sourcebook of Biotechnology

  3. Bud, Robert, "Janus-faced Biotechnology - An Historical Persceptive", Trends in Biotechnology v. 7, 1989, p. 230-33

  4. Torrey, John G., "The Development of Plant Biotechnology", American Scientist, 1985, 73:354-363

  5. Goodman, David C., From Farming to Biotechnology: A Theory of Agro-industrial Development Oxford: Blackwell, 1987

  6. Seabrook, John, "Tremors in the Hothouse", The New Yorker July 19, 1993 p. 32-41

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