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Biotechnology A Historical Perspective History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The term Biotechnology is mostly perceived as the science of 21st century but is biotechnology actually this modern? In the following article we wish to demystify the myths pertaining to Biotechnology being a modern science. Biotechnology is made up of two words Biology + Technology. Technology is basically anything which makes our life convenient or easier therefore any technology which uses Biological resources to make our life easier is Biotechnology. Biotechnology has been in practice long before the term “biotechnology” was itself coined. The human race had started exploiting the microbes by manipulating them unknowingly even before they had any clue about “gene”. Biotechnology has intervened our life deeply before we had any clue about the actual process. The Biotechnology has its root deep somewhere around 7000 BC when a civilization called Mesopotamians started selective breeding to improve the quality of livestock.

The timeline of biotechnology can be depicted as

Selective breeding of Livestock by Mesopotamians (7000 BC)

Brewing of Beer, Fermenting Wine and Baking of Bread with help of yeast by Egyptians (6000BC)

Production of Yoghurt and Cheese using “Lactic Acid producing” bacteria (2000BC)

Greeks Practice Crop Rotation to improve soil Fertility (250BC)

Invention of Microscope By Zacharias Janssen (1590)

Discovery of Protozoa and Bacteria by Anton Van Leeuwenhoek (1675)

Edward Jenner develops Vaccine (1797)

Coining of term “Biology”, Discovery of Cell nucleus and Proteins (1802-1833)

Discovery of “Laws of Inheritance” by Gregor Mendel (1856)

Discovery of bacterial origin of Fermentation and Pasteurisation by Louis Pasteur (1862)

The term “Biotechnology” was coined by Karl Ereky, a Hungarian Agriculture Engineer (1919)

First Antibiotic of the world “Penicillin” by Alexander Fleming (1928)

James D. Watson and Francis Crick describe the structure DNA (1953)

Kohler and Milstein give a Method for Production of Monoclonal Antibody (1975)

Discovery of Recombinant DNA Technology and production of Synthetic Insulin (1980)

Ian Wilmut et al Clone a Sheep and named it “Dolly” (1997)

Completion of Human Genome Project by Craig Venter (2000)

World first cell having complete Synthetic Genome at Craig Venter Institute (2010)

Immortality, Cyborgs…What next?

The Various eras of Biotechnology

If we trace back the history we would find that some crucial steps led to the modern day biotechnology

Domestication of plant and animals

(also crossbreeding of animals e.g. Mule and Hinny)



Discovery of cell and cell organelles

Discovery of Gene and DNA

Modern Biotechnology

Ancient Biotechnology (Pre-1800)

The requirement for food has been an inevitable need since the very existence of man. Early man used to eat raw meat whenever they found a dead animal. But during harsh weather seasons there was a scarcity of food. So as it is said necessity is the mother of invention, the early human started practising Agriculture i.e. he brought seeds of plants (mostly grains) and sowed them near his shelter. It involved the basic knowledge that seeds have the property mature and plants need water, light and other requirements for optimal growth. At almost the same time he started domesticating animals like cattle because it was better to have an animal near rather hunt for a wild one. It made them learn the basic breeding techniques. This started an era of farming which led to storage of food whenever there was an excess in yield. Thus people started devising various methods for preservation of food like storage in cold caves and storing in leather bags and clay jars, to name a few.

Cheese was the one of the first direct product of biotechnology because it was prepared by adding rennet (an enzyme found in the stomach of calves) to sour milk prepared by exposing milk to microbes. Yeast happens to be the oldest microbe exploited by humans for their benefit as it was widely used for bread baking, Vinegar production and other fermentation processes. Vinegar due to its low ph prevented growth of certain microbes so was used for preservation of food. Discovery of wine resulted from observation that fruit juices on fermentation yielded wine. People had already started practicing techniques like selective breeding and Fermentation for betterment of their lives being ignorant of the principles behind the process.

Mules, the first example of crossbreeding (an offspring of male donkey and female horse) can be traced back to the time when humans started domestication of horse around 1500BC.

Biblical references point to wine production around 3000 years ago.Even one of the Hindu mythology texts Rig Veda mentions the Som and Sura, two beverages consumed by Aryans in the 2000-800 BC. Aryans exploited processes like Fermentation and distillation to prepare them.

With advancement in fermentation techniques products like glycerol, acetone and critic acid were possible.

But the biotechnological revolution began with the discovery of cell, the fundamental unit of structure and function in any living organism and the whole new world inside it i.e cell organelles. The term cell was coined by Robert Koch in 1665 when he observed small compartment like structure in slices of cork while the first one to witness a living cell (Algae, Spirogyra) was Zacharias Janssen. He named them “Animalcules” meaning Tiny animals.

Classical Biotechnology


With further advancement of science the pieces of biotechnology puzzle started coming together. In 1827 the most important piece was discovered, the nucleus by Robert brown.In 1868 Fredrich Miescher, a Swiss biologist, successfully isolated “nuclein”, a compound that includes nucleic acid, from pus cells (White blood cells) obtained from discarded bandages.

Now the missing part of puzzle was how life is inherited? This thirst was quenched by Gregor Mendel (1822 – 1884), an Augustinian monk, presented his laws of inheritance to the Natural Science Society in Brunn, Austria. Mendel proposed that invisible internal units of information account for observable traits, and that these “factors” -later called as genes are passed from one generation to the next. But the sad part of the story is the man was credited for his theory after his death which happened 34 years! after his discovery. The contribution of Mendel came to notice when Hugo de Vries, Erich Von Tschermak, and Carl Correns published research validating Mendel’s mechanism of heredity in 1900. The reason why Mendel’s work remained unnoticed for such a long period of time was, at the same time the Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was so talked about that it over shadowed it.

It was during this period Robert Koch (1881) described bacterial colonies growing on potato slices, on gelatin medium, and on agar medium. Since then Nutrient agar became a standard tool for obtaining pure cultures and for identifying genetic mutants.

The onset of 18th century marks the coining of three major terms in Biotechnology

“Biology” by Karl Burdach, the mother of term “Biotechnology” itself.

“Chromosome” by Heinrich Wilhelm Gottfried Von Waldeyer-Hartz.

Other major discoveries during this period include Bacterial origin of Fermentation by Louis Pasteur.


This can be considered as the golden period of biotechnology as most of the fundamental principles governing biotechnology were laid during this time period.

The fundamentals of genetics were redefined by Research of Thomas Hunt Morgan on Fruit flies i.e. Drosophila Melanogaster. This gave a clearer picture that chromosome have a definite function in heredity. Mutation theory was also established through his research. The road to modern genetics was clearer when Morgan proved that genes are carried on chromosome. Finally his work was published as “The theory of the Gene” in 1926

It was during this period that Wilhelm Johannsen in 1909 coined the terms “gene” to describe the carrier of heredity; ‘genotype’ to describe the genetic constitution of an organism; and ‘phenotype’ to describe the actual organism, which results from a combination of the genotype and the various environmental factors.

The advancement in genetics had some adverse effects too for example:

Eugenics Movement and U.S. Immigration Act of 1924, which limited the influx of poorly educated immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe on the grounds of suspected genetic inferiority.

Another important discovery during this period was when man discovered microorganisms can be used against microorganism, the extension of age old the “divide and rule” policy of humans. It was when Alexander Fleming, a Scottish pharmacologist discovered that all bacteria (staphylococci) surrounding a bit of mold growing in petri dish died. Later he found out “penicillin” the antibacterial toxin from the mold Penicillium notatum could be used against many infectious diseases. “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer,” But seeing the revolution his discovery started Fleming would have later said, “But I suppose that was exactly what I did”

This period is very significant because the term “Biotechnology” was first used By Karl Ereky, a Hungarian agricultural engineer during this period itself.


This era unfolds with one of the most remarkable discovery, prediction of “The Double helix structure of DNA” by James D Watson and Francis Crick utilising the X-ray Diffraction data collected by Rosalind Franklin. This laid a strong foundation for further research on DNA with could easily be noticed by the extensive DNA research during this period. Other historical events that took place during this period were postulation of the “operon” concept by Jacob and Monad (1958) and the Development of a method for production of Monoclonal antibodies by Kohler and Milstein (1975).

Modern Biotechnology (1976-Till date)

Since basic elements regarding Biotechnology were discovered and studied also extensive scientific techniques and instruments were already developed this era marks the Period of Modern Biotechnology when we started unleashing the potential of biotechnology for the welfare of Human race.

Some of the Major Contributors in Biotechnology

Gregor Johann Mendel

The man denoted as the “Father of Genetics” gave us laws of inheritance which significantly modified the perception of heredity.

Law of paired factors (Alleles).

Law of Dominance – In a pair of genes, one allele will dominate the other and control the physical appearance (Phenotype).

Law of Segregation- Traits are inherited independently.

Sir Alexander Fleming

The man behind the term “Antibiotic” discovered them first when he observed that colonies of bacterium Staphylococcus aureus could be destroyed by the mold Penicillium notatum. Thus it was deducted that P. notatum or its product has antibacterial activity which was referred to as “Antibiotics”. This led the platform for development of various medicines that could kill various types of disease causing bacteria even inside the body.

Dr. FHC Crick and Dr. James D Watson

They mark the first amalgam of Biology and Engineering which is the basic essence of Biotechnology itself. It was first when a Biologist (Watson) and Physicist (Crick) together revealed the secret of life, The double Helix or spiral staircase model of DNA. They utilised the X-ray diffraction patterns collected by Rosalind Franklin to propose this model.

Kary Banks Mullis

The credit goes to this man for developing a “Photocopier for DNA”, the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). PCR is a technique in molecular biology to amplify a single or few copies of a piece of DNA across several orders of magnitude, generating thousands to millions of copies of a specific DNA sequence.

Ian Wilmut

He is the person who showed us the first picture of unimaginable potential of Biotechnology. He was the first to clone a mammal from an adult somatic cell of Finnish Dorset Lamb named “Dolly”.

John Craig Venter

He was the first one to decode life of the homo sapiens species. He finished the sequencing of human genome in 2000. Another first credited to him is creation of synthetic life i.e. he played a major role in creating the first cell with a synthetic genome which could replicate autonomously (2010).

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