Since the dawn of civilization, humans have been using products based on biotechnology. As Homo sapiens were quite better than their old relatives, therefore soon they began to use micro-organisms for fermentation and in this way they had the beer to drink. This was the primary step, at the beginning of something new, which later completely dominate the field of life sciences – BIOTECHNOLOGY also shortly referred to as Biotech.
Thus, after the utilization of micro-organisms for fermentation and production of beer around 7000 BCE (before Common Era). Consequently, they began to use yeast for making bread in 4000 BCE. Also, developed antibiotics unknowingly from moldy soybean curds in 500 BCE.
Interestingly, they found a cure for bacterial diseases, even before they knew about its causative agents. That is what so amazing about humans. It had been a symbol that humans tend to move forward with a steady rate.
Foundation of Modern Biotechnology
Let’s jump to 1600s. It had been the beginning when for the first time Robert Hooke, English physicist was able to see and study a cell. All he did was to ascertain and describe the features of living cells. That later helps humans to use this knowledge and to control what these cells can do. And that thing became genetic engineering.
A few centuries later, in the 1800s two most important events happened, which fastened the road towards biotechnology.
Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, and scientist for the first time showed how traits are transferred from parents to offspring. Also, what the mode of inheritance is. Not only he proved what is inheritance and characters, but also successful in producing pea plant hybrids on that he primarily worked.
The Second Friedrich Miescher who for the first-time isolated DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) from white blood cells. He terms it Nuclein, as a result of the thought, it was a piece of Nucleus. Unbeknown to him, he discovered the secret of life.
Now, let’s skip ahead to the 20th century, the time fundamentals of biotechnology were laid down.
Wilhelm Johannsen, a Danish botanist, coined the word “Gene” for the traits the Mendel described in his research. The traits which would transfer from parents to offspring.
A German biochemist, Albrecht Kossel received the Noble prize for his work on “Nuclein.” He named it DNA. Also, he found out how DNA is made up of its building blocks known as Nucleotides, which are guanine, cytosine, thymine, and adenine.
The buried work of Mendel, once more came to light and as a results flood of researchers came to prove his work on inheritance. In order to prove Mendel’s work, Walter Flemming, a German scientist, identify a sort of fibrous structures inside the cell’s nucleus. He termed that structure as ‘chromatin’, now known as chromosomes.
Walter Sutton and Theodor Boveri were two scientists who proved that hereditary materials are present on chromosomes and transfer to offspring from parents according to Mendelian laws.
Till then nobody knew, however, DNA looks like, finally, in 1953 James Watson, Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, and Maurice Wilkins. This was where the fundamental of biotechnology concluded, and a new era of how to use and control biotechnology began.
Watson & Crick model of DNA structure (left), X-ray diffraction image of DNA by Wilkins and Franklin (right) Source: Science
In the late 1960s, molecular biologists, Werner Arber, Hamilton O. Smith, and Daniel Nathans, identify restriction enzymes. Naturally, these enzymes are present in bacterial cells and are involved to encounter bacteriophages – the viruses that infect bacteria. They act as molecular scissors that recognize and cleave a particular portion of DNA. With the help of these enzymes, we can cleave DNA.
Now, to join two or more DNA fragments, we need some glue. Luckily in 1963, DNA ligases were also discovered. It is an enzyme that acts as molecular glue, and allows the joining of two pieces of DNA, regardless of their origin.
Now all the ingredients for making a DNA of our choice were present, all we needed was someone to tweak it. Luckily, in 1973, for the first time, Stanley Norman Cohen and Herbert Boyer, insert and expressed a foreign DNA particle in bacteria and laid down the foundation of Recombinant DNA Technology (RDT). Later, both went on to build a biotech company ‘Genentech’ that makes recombinant insulin and growth hormones.
Up till the 1980s, researchers were only able to cleave and ligate DNA fragments. Also, later transfer that hybrid DNA into bacterial cells to express it. Many researchers, present at that time, thought how we could make multiple copies of a gene to perform the biological experiment on a large scale.
Kary Mulis answered that question in 1983, who invented a technique called Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). Now, the PCR technique allows researchers to make multiple copies of a single gene in large quantity.
At the end of the 20th century, scientist hit two major milestones. First, they were able to create a clone of sheep called Dolly. Secondly, researchers sequence the whole human genome. The project referred to as the Human Genome Project.
Currently, the scientist is using technologies like genome-editing such as CRISPR to twerk around DNA. And enable editing or eliminating specific segments of DNA, to make it beneficial for humans. Other technologies include Stem cells – regenerative medicines, 3D printing, sequencing, and synthetic DNA synthesis.
Read more about CRISPR: What is CRISPR Cas9?
So what is Biotechnology?
Biotechnology can be defined as the use of a living system or organisms for the production of breakthrough technologies and products to combat diseases and preserve the environment. Also, to eliminate the hungry, produce biofuels, and build many more other useful products.
Biotechnology isn’t a single field like biology or chemistry. But it is, in fact, an integrated field. You can think of it as a cocktail of various fields. In biotechnology, you will find physics working with biology or computer helping us to understand the physical properties of different molecules present in our body. Or how a single living organism affects the environment in which it is living, are some of the examples of how biotechnology is integrated and the way it is not a stand-alone field.
How Biotechnology change our daily lives?
Biotechnology solution for Diabetes
From our discoveries in biotechnology, we were able to find a cure for Diabetes.
Diabetes is a disease in which the body is unable to maintain a safe sugar level in the body because of the inability to make insulin or to make insufficient insulin.
Insulin is chemicals that are released in the body in response to high sugar level, mainly after a meal. Insulin signals the body to store the excess sugar and to control the sugar level to a safe level.
Conventionally, scientists were able to isolate a massive amount of insulin from pigs and other bovines (animals related to cow family). While for this, tons of pancreas were required, which were not enough and the process was too lengthy and costly. An easy and straightforward solution was needed.
This simple solution came in the form of Humulin – the first synthetic human insulin created.
Humulin is developed using Recombinant DNA technology by inserting a human insulin gene into a bacterium. Later, the bacteria would make human insulin in large amounts.
Moreover, this Humulin was the first synthetic product. It was where a new field of science was born ‘’Synthetic Biology”.
Explore more about Synthetic Biology: Synthetic Biology: Promises and Perils