Where Did Biotechnology Begin?
"Biotechnology At Work" and "Biotechnology in Perspective,"
Washington, D.C.: Biotechnology Industry Organization, 1989,
With the Basics
Certain practices that we would now classify as applications of
biotechnology have been in use since man's earliest days. Nearly
10,000 years ago, our ancestors were producing wine, beer, and bread
by using fermentation, a natural process in which the biological
activity of one-celled organisms plays a critical role.
In fermentation, microorganisms such as bacteria, yeasts, and molds
are mixed with ingredients that provide them with food. As they digest
this food, the organisms produce two critical by-products, carbon
dioxide gas and alcohol.
In beer making, yeast cells break down starch and sugar (present in
cereal grains) to form alcohol; the froth, or head, of the beer
results from the carbon dioxide gas that the cells produce. In simple
terms, the living cells rearrange chemical elements to form new
products that they need to live and reproduce. By happy coincidence,
in the process of doing so they help make a popular beverage.
Bread baking is also dependent on the action of yeast cells. The bread
dough contains nutrients that these cells digest for their own
sustenance. The digestion process generates alcohol (which contributes
to that wonderful aroma of baking bread) and carbon dioxide gas (which
makes the dough rise and forms the honeycomb texture of the baked
Discovery of the fermentation process allowed early peoples to produce
foods by allowing live organisms to act on other ingredients. But our
ancestors also found that, by manipulating the conditions under which
the fermentation took place, they could improve both the quality and
the yield of the ingredients themselves.
Although plant science is a relatively modern discipline, its
fundamental techniques have been applied throughout human
history. When early man went through the crucial transition from
nomadic hunter to settled farmer, cultivated crops became vital for
survival. These primitive farmers, although ignorant of the natural
principles at work, found that they could increase the yield and
improve the taste of crops by selecting seeds from particularly
Farmers long ago noted that they could improve each succeeding year's
harvest by using seed from only the best plants of the current
crop. Plants that, for example, gave the highest yield, stayed the
healthiest during periods of drought or disease, or were easiest to
harvest tended to produce future generations with these same
characteristics. Through several years of careful seed selection,
farmers could maintain and strengthen such desirable traits.
The possibilities for improving plants expanded as a result of
investigations in the mid-1860s of hereditary traits in peas. Once the
genetic basis of heredity was understood, the benefits of
cross-breeding, or hybridization, became apparent: plants with
different desirable traits could be used to cultivate a later
generation that combined these characteristics.
An understanding of the scientific principles behind fermentation and
crop improvement practices has come only in the last hundred
years. But the early, crude techniques, even without the benefit of
sophisticated laboratories and automated equipment, were a true
practice of biotechnology guiding natural processes to improve man's
physical and economic well-being.
Harnessing Microbes for Health
Every student of chemistry knows the shape of a Buchner funnel, but
they may be unaware that the distinguished German scientist it was
named after made the vital discovery (in 1897) that enzymes extracted
from yeast are effective in converting sugar into alcohol. Major
outbreaks of disease in overcrowded industrial cities led eventually
to the introduction, in the early years of the present century, of
large-scale sewage purification systems based on microbial
activity. By this time it had proved possible to generate certain key
industrial chemicals (glycerol, acetone, and butanol) using bacteria.
Another major beneficial legacy of early 20th century biotechnology
was the discovery by Alexander Fleming (in 1928) of penicillin, an
antibiotic derived from the mold Penicillium. Large-scale production
of penicillin was achieved in the 1940s. However, the revolution in
understanding the chemical basis of cell function that stemmed from
the post-war emergence of molecular biology was still to come. It was
this exciting phase of bioscience that led to the recent explosive
development of biotechnology.
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