Overview and Brief History
Ann Murphy and Judy Perrella. Woodrow Wilson Foundation Biology Institute. "A Further Look at Biotechnology." Princeton, NJ: The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, 1993.
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.
A common misconception among teachers is the thought that
biotechnology includes only 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
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,
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
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.
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 compared the discovery of the
edible tomato that came about by early biotechnology with the new
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
technology 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 "backyard 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 in techniques has resulted in three major branches of biotechnology: genetic engineering, diagnostic techniques, and cell/tissue techniques.
Go to next story: Helping Heal Mother Nature with Her Own Remedies
Return to About Biotech directory