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Where Did Biotechnology Begin?

"Biotechnology At Work" and "Biotechnology in Perspective," Washington, D.C.: Biotechnology Industry Organization, 1989, 1990.

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 loaf).

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.

Crop Improvement

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 desirable plants.

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 Gregor Mendel's 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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