What is Biotechnology?
Pamela Peters, from Biotechnology: A Guide To Genetic
Engineering. Wm. C. Brown Publishers, Inc., 1993.
Biotechnology in one form or another has flourished since prehistoric
times. When the first human beings realized that they could plant
their own crops and breed their own animals, they learned to use
biotechnology. The discovery that fruit juices fermented into wine,
or that milk could be converted into cheese or yogurt, or that beer
could be made by fermenting solutions of malt and hops began the study
of biotechnology. When the first bakers found that they could make a
soft, spongy bread rather than a firm, thin cracker, they were acting
as fledgling biotechnologists. The first animal breeders, realizing
that different physical traits could be either magnified or lost by
mating appropriate pairs of animals, engaged in the manipulations of
What then is biotechnology? The term brings to mind many different
things. Some think of developing new types of animals. Others dream
of almost unlimited sources of human therapeutic drugs. Still others
envision the possibility of growing crops that are more nutritious and
naturally pest-resistant to feed a rapidly growing world population.
This question elicits almost as many first-thought responses as there
are people to whom the question can be posed.
In its purest form, the term "biotechnology" refers to the use of
living organisms or their products to modify human health and the
human environment. Prehistoric biotechnologists did this as they used
yeast cells to raise bread dough and to ferment alcoholic beverages,
and bacterial cells to make cheeses and yogurts and as they bred their
strong, productive animals to make even stronger and more productive
Throughout human history, we have learned a great deal about the
different organisms that our ancestors used so effectively. The
marked increase in our understanding of these organisms and their cell
products gains us the ability to control the many functions of various
cells and organisms. Using the techniques of gene splicing and recombinant
DNA technology, we can now actually combine the genetic elements
of two or more living cells. Functioning lengths of DNA can be taken
from one organism and placed into the cells of another organism. As a
result, for example, we can cause bacterial cells to produce human
molecules. Cows can produce more milk for the same amount of feed.
And we can synthesize therapeutic molecules that have never before
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