Introduction to Biotechnology

Biotechnology is a term coined by the Hungarian engineer, Karl Ereky, in 1919. Whereas the term is relatively new, the phenomenon of using living organisms to perform processes that result in advantageous products for humans is not. Biotechnology, in the wider sense of the word, has been employed by humans for thousands of years – even if our ancestors weren’t very informed about the biological and molecular procedures that were taking place.

Several millennia before the appearance of modern amenities like hotels in Umhlanga and a Land Rover Discovery for sale over the net, one of the early ways in which our distant predecessors harnessed the power of biological processes was in agriculture: when human beings settled down into agrarian societies and gave up their nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles, they began to grow crops. Farmers noticed that if they used the seeds from strong, healthy crops, the chances of the new crop’s survival dramatically increased. From our current point of view, we know that this is because the genes of the strong, robust harvest were passed onto the next generation. By continually using seeds from the strongest crops, and consuming the seeds of the weaker plants, the chances of reaping a good yield grew better with each new generation of crop. Compared to our current understanding of biotech, these early practices look somewhat like educational toys do to a highly educated individual.

Whereas the above practice could not be seen as the genetic modification of a crop, it is an example of a method of careful generational selection in order to cultivate a specific trait in an organism. The same principle was similarly applied to livestock as well: breeders would attempt to cultivate desirable traits in animals by pairing mates that both displayed the desired traits. Essentially, human beings had intervened on natural biological processes in order to produce a product that had some economic value as it presented our ancestors with a means by which material living could be made more comfortable and secure.

The process of fermentation is another example of pre-industrial societies using biotechnology to engineer a specific product for human consumption. In this latter case, microbial organisms digest organic matter and produce two by-products: that is, alcohol and carbon dioxide. When yeast is added to bread, the bacteria digest the wheat dough and release both CO2 and alcohol. The alcohol evaporates from the bread, giving baking bread a rich, full aroma; the carbon dioxide released causes the bread to raise from its normal, flat, biscuit like state into a soft loaf.

Biotechnology, as we understand it today, however, has come a very long way since we used it for a very limited set of purposes: this is to say that since the Second World War, several notable advances made in scientific knowledge have vastly increased our ability to use biological organisms and processes to resist disease, genetically alter food stuffs and cure a variety of illnesses. Indeed, the medical field has advanced treatments (like gene therapy, for example) that owe entirely to humankind’s deeper understanding of the way that living organisms function.

Health sciences, however, are not the only beneficiaries of biotechnological developments: insights into molecular biology have had an enormous effect on the veterinary sciences, botany, plant biotechnology, genetics, microbiology, human and animal physiology, biochemistry and zoology.