The term "biotechnology" was coined in 1919 by Hungarian scientist Karl Ereky to mean "any product produced from raw materials with the aid of living organisms." In its broadest sense, biotechnology dates from ancient times. Approximately 6000 B.C.E., the Sumarians and Babylonians discovered the use of yeast in making beer. About 4000 B.C.E., the Egyptians employed yeast to make bread and the Chinese bacteria to make yogurt.

The modern sense of biotechnology dates from the mid-1970s, when molecular biologists developed techniques to isolate, identify, and clone individual genes . These genes could then be manipulated in the test tube, and could be inserted into other organisms by "recombinant technology." The dawn of modern biotechnology dates from 1977 when the biotechnology company Genetech reported the production in bacteria of the first human protein , somatostatin , by recombinant technology. Shortly thereafter, human insulin and human growth hormone (hGH) were also produced by similar techniques.

Biotechnology promises dramatic discoveries in the twenty-first century, particularly in the areas of new drugs, antibiotics, and medicines. Plants and animals are being genetically manipulated ("plant and animal pharms") to produce useful reagents such as antibodies in milk and vaccines in potatoes. A new "green revolution" in biotechnology is taking place to improve food crops. Plants are being developed that produce their own nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides. Others are resistant to herbicides to eradicate weeds and improve crop yield. Rice, the primary foodstuff of one-third of the world's population, is deficient in vitamin A. By the insertion of a gene from a flower into rice, a new strain of "golden rice," rich in vitamin A, promises to alleviate vitamin A–deficient blindness in these populations. On the negative side, biotechnology, unfortunately, is being used to develop biological weapons by increasing the virulence of pathogens or creating new "superbugs."

SEE ALSO Clone ; DNA Sequencing ; Gene Therapy ; Genomics ; Human Genome Project ; Polymerase Chain Reaction ; Recombinant DNA

Ralph Meyer


Alcamo, I. Edward. DNA Technology: The Awesome Skill, 2nd ed. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2001.

Bud, Robert, and Mark. F. Cantley. The Uses of Life: A History of Biotechnology, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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