Biotechnology holds a certain mystique in the realm of the lay person. The wondrous technologies that come out of research in this industry seem like magic to some.
Genomics, nanotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and crime scene investigation all owe their continued existences to biotechnology in some way or another. This industry is moving the economy forward with its ever-increasing scientific prowess and knowledge, and it is showing no signs of stopping.
Isn’t it odd, then, that biotechnology is thought of as one of the oldest professions in the world? Typically, when we think of biotech, we think of the recombinant DNA technology revolution that began in the 1980s. At the earliest, we might think of the discovery of penicillin or the polio vaccine. Ultimately, it raises a question for us: what is biotechnology? How did it come to be? This post will give a brief highlight of the history of biotech and how it has come to be one of the most critical fields of medicinal research.
Ancient Times – Or How All Interesting Things Seem to Start with Beer
If anthropology is to be believed, the earliest roots of biotechnology were planted by the discovery of fermentation. It has been argued that our dependence on agriculture was strongly promoted not by our need for a constant food source. It was found that food could be turned into alcohol, and the desirable effects it created were enough to spur one of the most important technological revolutions in mankind’s history.
It sounds silly to start with beer, but the use of yeast as a tool to create something desirable is a perfect description of biotechnology. Yeast itself is an appropriate starting point in this story, as well, since it played a critical role in of the most defining discoveries of the last 20 years. But we’ll get to that.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, improvement in biotechnology was to take a backseat to other industries for the majority of the post-Christ times. Certainly, one could find examples of important biological discovery in the Middle Ages. Paracelsus revolutionized medicine in ways that are still relevant today, for example.
The modern scientific revolution was where society began to cast out superstitious ghosts and embrace reason. Our knowledge of chemistry and physics exploded. On the medicine end of things, doctors were finally removing the Aristotlean humor theory which had held a grip on progress. Humor theory used the idea that humans were composed of four different elements, including black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. An imbalance in any of these materials led to disease. This is one reason that bloodletting, draining blood from a sick patient, made sense to medieval doctors.
The late 1700s into the 1800s was a period of great revolution in the western world. The United States of America was born. The French Revolution deposed the monarchy. The Industrial Revolution sparked one of the most intense periods of technological innovation. This spurred the development of new physical and chemical research. It also gave much wider access to scientific literature. Improved dissemination of data meant that not only could a scientist gain notoriety by making a big discovery, but the ideas themselves could evolve more quickly. As a result, the old biological methods improved. Before the 1800s, scientists basically worked in the same way as ancient Babylon. Medicines were derived from natural sources. Any biological materials needed to be painstakingly extracted in order to be used. The result was far too little material to make good headway in biological research.
But then the scientists discovered enzymes. These biological catalysts allowed researchers to mimic natural processes for the first time. While still primitive, the study of enzymes would prove to be important later.
The mid- to late-1800s also gave us one the sown seeds of the genetics field. The work of the likes of Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin helped us to understand inheritance and how it might lead to different organisms. Genetics and evolution would later prove to be monumentally important in future biotechnological findings.
The Modern Era
Well into the 1900s, industry was what we typically think of. That would be the clang of metal, the smoke pouring from stacks, and the tireless toiling of workers. Steel and oil courted the investors of those times. Biological research was still basically at the lab bench. Certainly, we encountered important discoveries in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur helped us understand that the heart of all infectious disease was microorganisms like bacteria. This helped us understand how to better fight off infections, and later we would use these microorganisms to drive our most important biotech inventions.
But the introduction of the Model T, dynamite, and the dominance of industry typically characterizes this era of history.
The Whispers of What’s to Come
So where did we really get started with the biotech revolution? World War II helped to an extent, since the risk of infection made the mass production of penicillin necessary. But biotechnology in its modern form began with a one-page Nature report in 1953. James Watson and Francis Crick published a single drawing and some x-ray crystallography data nailing down the structure of the DNA double helix. This seemingly-simple observation sparked our understanding of genes in the following years.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, our knowledge of what made up genes gained ground. Mendel’s observations only characterized genes as discrete traits that could be dominant or recessive. He could not fathom that the genes themselves are these massively complex groups of nucleic acids that arrange themselves and bind with proteins in order to manufacture other proteins.
Another important moment in biotechnology was the discovery of polymerases. These are enzymes that help to either replicate DNA chains or to transcribe them into the single-helical RNA molecules that help make proteins. The fuel for biotech was gathering. The spark would be these polymerase molecules.
A New Revolution
Two discoveries could be said to be at the heart of biotechnology as we know it today. The first used those same microorganisms shown to cause disease by Pasteur and Koch nearly a century earlier. Researchers at Genentech took E.coli and inserted the gene known to produce insulin. This was the first example of genetic engineering being used to produce a biological product, and it was a sign of things to come for biotech.
Arguably more important was the development of polymerase chain reaction in the early 1980s. Kary Mullis envisioned the process of the two strands of DNA coming apart and then coming back together, and he undertook the research needed to make it a process we could use. The result was PCR, the ability to take tiny amounts of DNA and amplify it to usable quantities. It was later improved further to allow for automation, but PCR facilitates most of the other discoveries in biotech.
Without PCR, we would have a difficult time isolating, cloning, and characterizing genes that we find to be beneficial. Making mutations in genes would still involve laborious breeding of animals to characterize. With PCR, we can simply design special molecules called primers to introduce mutations into genes and test their functions.
Figure the Whole Genome Out
The next important discovery came thanks to the ancient friend of humans, yeast. The same microorganism that gave us beer and bread and helped us focus on agriculture was the first target of a whole genome project. By understanding the entire genome of an organism, we can better predict how it will be regulated. With this task under their belts, scientists endeavored to tackle the human genome.
Sequencing all the genes of humans is no small task. There are more than 20,000 genes encoded within our cells, and a huge proportion of the genome is made up of so-called “junk” DNA. It took more than 12 years of dedicated work to complete the genome, but it has created a revolution in our understanding of genes and how we relate to other organisms. Along the way, biotechnology has been the primary driver, since knowledge of our genes helps to empower our knowledge of disease and cures.
Biotechnology continues to evolve at a rapid pace today. The development of techniques like high-throughput sequencing gives promise for more advanced applications like personalized whole-genome sequencing. Imagine going to the doctor, having a blood draw, and knowing within a few weeks all of your genetic susceptibilities. There would be no more questioning about familial history.
Development of therapeutics is hastened, as well. Recombinant biologics such as humanized antibodies and aptamers allow us to specifically target molecules within the body to fight infections and cancer. Gene therapy, the delivery of genes into cells using viruses, holds great promise for the correction of devastating congenital disorders like cystic fibrosis. Stem cell therapy may allow us to manufacture whole tissues, and it is already in clinical trials.
Without a doubt, biotechnology will continue to gain power as an industry. In the generations to come, we may come to associate the word industry with the clean lab, white coats, and medicines that we take instead of metal, smoke, and machines.
The biotechnology exhibition, held in Tel Aviv- Israel this year, will be a great place to learn more about new developments in biotech from the most promising biotech companies in the world. Targeted for doctors and scientists, IATI Biomed 2013 will also offer great networking opportunities for everyone in the industry.
Zack Fisher helps people understand and leverage biotechnology and its impact on society. He is a freelance writer and is currently a research fellow in biomedical sciences at the West Virginia University School of Medicine.
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