6000 BC - 1700 AD: Early Applications and Speculation
Biotechnology as a way of life in ancient and pre-modern times. The
advent of observational science.
Yeast was used to make beer by Sumerians and Babylonians.
The Egyptians discovered how to bake leavened bread using yeast.
Other fermentation processes were established in the ancient world,
notably in China. The preservation of milk by lactic acid bacteria
resulted in yogurt. Molds were used to produce cheese, and vinegar
and wine were manufactured by fermentation.
Babylonians celebrated the pollination of date palm trees with
Socrates (470? - 399 BC), the Greek philosopher, speculated on why
children don't always resemble their parents. He enjoyed remarking
that the sons of great statesmen were usually lazy and good for
Hippocrates (460 - 377 BC) determined that the male contribution to a
child's heredity is carried in the semen. By analogy, he guessed
there is a similar fluid in women, since children clearly receive
traits from each in approximately equal proportion.
Aristotle (384 - 322 BC), choosing to reject the theories of
Hippocrates, told his students that all inheritance comes from the
father. The male semen, he asserted, determines the baby's form,
while the mother merely provides the material from which the baby is
made. He suggested that female babies are caused by "interference"
from the mother's blood.
Romans speculated that mares can be fertilized by the wind.
Hindu philosophers first pondered the nature of reproduction and
Hindus observed that certain diseases may "run in the family."
Moreover, they came to believe that children inherit all their
parents' characteristics. "A man of base descents can never escape
his origins," went the laws of Manu.
1100 - 1700 AD
Generation is the dominant explanation that organisms arise from
non-living matter. Maggots, for example, were supposed to arise from
The Aztecs in Mexico harvested algae from lakes as a food source.
While distillation of a variety of spirits from fermented grain was
widespread, Egypt and Persia largely gave up brewing as a result of
the influence of Islam. Fermented breads and cereals still maintained
their hold in the African diet.
concluded that plants and animals alike reproduce in a
sexual manner: males contribute pollen or sperm; females contribute
eggs. However, two hundred years passed before the first mammalian
eggs were observed.
Robert Hooke observed the cellular structure of cork. But it wasn't
until almost 200 years later that scientists, armed with better
microscopes, realized that all of us are divided into very small
Francesco Redi (born 1626) used an experiment to compare two competing
ideas that seek to explain why maggots arise on rotting meat. He
observed that meat covered to exclude flies did not develop maggots,
while similar uncovered meat did. This is regarded as the first
disproof of spontaneous generation, and was among the first uses of a
Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694) in this period used a microscope to
study blood circulation in capillaries, described the nervous system
as bundles of fibers connected to the brain by the spinal cord,
detailed the anatomy of the silkworm, described the development of the
chick in its egg, and published work on plant anatomy.
Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632 - 1723), a Dutch merchant and civic
administrator who ground glass lenses as a hobby, used his microscopes
to make discoveries in microbiology. He was the first scientist to
describe protozoa and bacteria and to recognize that such
microorganisms might play a role in fermentation. His treatise on the
flea is a classic, proclaiming that fleas - like fish, dogs, and
humans - are sexual beings. He also confirmed (1677) the discovery by
Louis Dominicus Hamm of the existence of sperm cells.
Compiled from various sources, including:
Brock, Thomas D. 1961. Milestones in Microbiology. Science Tech
Publishers. Madison, Wisconsin. Pp. 273.
Brock, Thomas D. 1990. The Emergence of Bacterial Genetics. Cold
Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Pp.
Bunch, Bryan and Hellemans, Alexander. 1993. The Timetables of
Technology. Simon & Schuster. New York, New York. Pp. 490.
Hellemans, Alexander, and Bunch, Bryan. 1988. The Timetables of
Science. Simon & Schuster. New York, New York. Pp. 660.
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