What is biotechnology?
Biotechnology is the use of living things to make or change products. It is both an ancient art and a modern science with applications across different sectors.
2 April 2008 | Updated 14 October 2011
Ancient art or modern science
The word 'biotechnology' is modern, but humans have been using biotechnology to produce some of their staple foods and favourite beverages since the dawn of civilisation.
In early farming communities in the Middle East 10 000 years ago, people ate bread for sustenance, and drank beer made by fermenting malted grain or barley bread steeped in water — with a little help from invisible friends. Baker’s yeast still creates the bubbles that cause bread dough to rise; and brewer’s yeast puts the fizz into beer.
Early civilisations quaffed wine made from grape juice fermented spontaneously, by yeast and bacteria that form the waxy bloom on ripe grapes.
They preserved perishable foods like fruit and vegetables by pickling them and made sausages by fermenting raw meat mixed with spice preservatives, as salami is made today.
Nomadic herdsmen in central Asia still rely on the same staple diet of cheese and yoghurt that sustained their ancestors thousands of years ago. Both are products of an ancient biotechnological practice that probably pre-dates agriculture.
When milk is stored in primitive vessels made from goats’ or calves’ stomachs, it curdles in the presence of the digestive enzyme, rennet. Lactococcus and lactobacillus bacteria then take over, transforming the curd into cheese. Whole milk fermented by Lactobacillus yields another dietary staple – yogurt.
In ancient times, the processes that transformed simple raw materials into tasty, nutritious foods must have seemed magical. We now know the answer was biotechnology, in the form of friendly, fermenting microbes.
Biotechnology harnesses the special biochemical talents of living cells, from simple, single-celled bacteria and yeasts, to complex multicellular organisms like plants and animals, for human benefit.
Agriculture itself can be regarded as a form of biotechnology – over thousands of years, humans have chosen animals and plants from the wild and gradually transformed them into today’s familiar, highly productive crops and farm animals by selecting types with useful qualities.
During the past century, biotechnology has changed from an art into a modern science. To the small list of microbes used by our ancestors to make their food, scientists have added thousands of new species and many more await discovery.
Over 3.5 billion years of evolution, microbes have acquired a vast repertoire of biochemical skills that allow them to colonise most environments on land, in the oceans, even the deep rocks of the Earth’s crust. We are just beginning to appreciate their extraordinary capabilities and use them for our own needs and for the benefit of the environment.
Today, biotechnology is indispensable to our health and wellbeing. Every society on earth uses and depends on it in one form or another.