What do stone-washed jeans and home pregnancy tests have in common with bread, cheese and wine? They are all examples of manipulating living organisms to create products or new processes. They are all products of biotechnology.
Humans have used biotechnology since the dawn of civilization. Egyptians used yeasts to bake leavened bread, the Chinese developed fermentation techniques for brewing and cheese making, and the Aztecs used Spirulina algae to make cakes. Today, when most people think of biotechnology, they probably think of recombinant DNA. Although much of modern biotechnology does deal with manipulating DNA, classical biotechnology began long before we even knew about genes or chromosomes. What began as recipes for production of food now includes technology to enhance everything from farming to pharmaceuticals.
What we think of as modern biotechnology began around the end of the nineteenth century. By then, Mendel's work on genetics was completed and institutes for investigating fermentation along with other microbial processes had been founded by Koch, Pasteur, and Lister.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, industry and agriculture started to incorporate biotechnology. The growing automobile industry, for example, used fermentation processes to produce acetone and paint solvents. By mid-century, major advances in genetics dominated biotechnology research. The discovery that DNA carries the genetic code and the structure of the "double helix" were described by Watson and Crick. Soon, new techniques were developed to allow manipulation of DNA. Genetically engineered plants, microbes, animals, and products like insulin, highlight the future of biotechnology.
The importance of the new genetics culminated in The Human Genome Project, an international project instituted by the Department of Energy
and the National Institutes of Health to "map the human genome." The goal of this project is to identify the structure of the entire human genome,
including its three billion base pairs and approximately 22,000 genes. The hope is that this knowledge will help scientists identify, prevent and treat many of the illnesses resulting from genetic malfunction.
Discussion of the ethical implications of recombinant experiments began several decades ago. James Watson was the elected as the first director of the Office of Human Genome Research at the NIH. With great insight, he suggested a portion of the budget of the human genome project be set aside to study the ethical, legal and social implications of the project. As genetic discoveries have progressed, the importance of regulating how the knowledge will be used has become of primary importance. Philosophers and ethicists now work side by side with research scientists and lawyers to help determine not only what we can do, but also what we should do with genetic knowledge.
Today, biotechnology is being used in countless areas including agriculture, clincial applications, bioremediation and forensics, where DNA sequencing is a common practice. Industry and medicine alike use the techniques of PCR, immunoassays and recombinant DNA. Genetic manipulation has been the primary reason that biology is now seen as the science of the future and biotechnology as one of the leading industries.