Basics of Biotechnology
ADVENT OF THE BIOTECHNOLOGY REVOLUTION
Biotechnology involves the use of living organisms in industrial processes—particularly in agriculture, food processing, and medicine. Biotechnology has been around since the dawn of time, ever since humans began manipulating the natural environment to improve their food supply, housing, and health. Biotechnology is not limited to humankind. Beavers cut up trees to build homes. Elephants deliberately drink fermented fruit to get an alcohol buzz. People have been making wine, beer, cheese, and bread for centuries. All these processes rely on microorganisms to modify the original ingredients (Fig. 1.1). Over the ages, farmers have chosen higher yielding crops by trial and error, so that many modern crop plants have much larger fruit or seeds than their ancestors (Fig. 1.2).
The reason we think of biotechnology as modern is because of recent advances in molecular biology and genetic engineering. Huge strides have been made in our understanding of microorganisms, plants, livestock, as well as the human body and the natural environment. This has caused an explosion in the number and variety of biotechnology products. Face creams contain antioxidants—supposedly to fight the aging process. Genetically modified plants have genes inserted to protect them from insects, thus increasing the crop yield while decreasing the amount of insecticides used. Medicines are becoming more specific and compatible with our physiology. For example, insulin for diabetics is now genuine human insulin, although produced by genetically modified bacteria. Almost everyone has been affected by the recent advances in genetics and biochemistry.
Mendel’s early work that described how genetic characteristics are inherited from one generation to the next was the beginning of modern genetics (see Box 1.1). Next came the discovery of the chemical material of which genes are made—DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). This in turn led to the central dogma of genetics; the concept that genes made of DNA are expressed as an RNA (ribonucleic acid) intermediary that is then decoded to make proteins. These three steps are universal, applying to every type of organism on earth. Yet these three steps are so malleable that life is found in almost every available niche on our planet.