As the latest in a string of articles on the subject of biotechnology, we wanted to explore just how far back this fascinating industry goes, and what it has achieved along the way. Don’t worry, it is not all technical terms! It’s not all glow in the dark cats either (unfortunately).
First things first, what is biotechnology? It is the application of biology (cellular processes, microorganisms, genetics) into technology for industrial and medical purposes. Essentially, using biology to create solutions to human, animal and plant problems.
A lot of people associate biotechnology with the production of drugs, and medical application. Whilst this is an important area, biotechnology can also refer to agriculture, the environment, industrial uses, or energy.
Can you believe there is evidence of biotechnology occurring as far back as 500 BC? To me it sounds so futuristic and impressive, it is hard to understand just how much it has affected our world. The first instance of biology being used for human application was in China, when moldy soybean curds were used to cure boils. Try not to think about that next time you are eating beancurd!
The real advancements started in the 1700s when vaccination was discovered and used for the first time to inoculate a child against smallpox. In the 1800s, hundreds of varieties of cotton were produced through crossbreeding, which was the height of science back then. If only that was all we had to learn about in school these days.
In the 1900s medical developments using biotechnology were developing advancing in leaps and bounds. The first cancer-causing virus was found in 1911 by the American Peyton Rous. Penicillin was produced by Alexander Fleming, and is now used daily across the world.
One field of biotechnology recorded is zymotechnology, recorded as far back as World War One, which is related to the fermentation of beer. That’s right. Beer = science. Back in the day, beer was just as much about keeping the trade and industries alive, rather than just catching up with you friends, finding new ways to make brewing the good stuff work was very important.
In the 50s, the first antibiotic was created, and DNA was made for the time in a test tube. That was a breakthrough decade for biotechnology (and scientists).
In 1980, smallpox was eradicated across the globe after a whopping twenty years of research and vaccination attempts. This was a well-celebrated success, but just the start of some amazing things achieved in the 80s: the first transgenic animals (mice with other animals’ DNA); insulin is produced for the first time; the first anti-cancer drug was made, and to top it all off, they produced a corn that was resistant to pests!
If you think that was impressive, how about the 90s? The first successful gene therapy performed on a young girl; a new drug to increase milk production in cows; the first breast cancer gene is discovered, setting into motion a whole new branch of research; a gene associated with Parkinson’s disease is discovered, and they can now test for it; the first animal clone occurred – we all know about Dolly the sheep!
All of these things, and thousands more, come under the umbrella of biotechnology, and we must confess, we didn’t even know half of them existed. The things that have been achieved are outstanding, and although this was a very quick pit-stop through biotech history, hopefully it gave you a flavor of what it involves and just how impressive it really is.