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Origins of Biotechnology

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Biotechnology, the use of living organisms to manufacture pharmaceuticals and other products and to promote industrial processes. Microbes, such as bacteria, and fungi were first harnessed in this way, followed by plants and most recently by animals. "Old" biotechnology includes well-established microbial processes such as brewing, sewage disposal, and the production of antibiotics. However, the term has become particularly familiar since the development of genetic engineering during the 1970s. Much "new" biotechnology uses organisms genetically altered to work more effectively than before, or to function in entirely new ways. Origins of Biotechnology The oldest examples of what we now call biotechnology are the manufacture of beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages. Many societies in the distant past discovered that sugary and starchy materials sometimes changed spontaneously, generating alcohol. The phenomenon was gradually brought under conscious control and in the 19th century the French chemist Louis Pasteur showed that fermentation was promoted by microbes. He also found that other micro-organisms, different in appearance, were responsible for processes such as vinegar production. Pasteur's work not only revolutionized the technology of beer- and wine-making-by, for example, excluding microbes that could contaminate the fermentation and cause deleterious changes-it also indicated that other chemicals could be manufactured in bulk by microbes. ...read more.


This means introducing genes, taken from disease-causing micro-organisms, that determine the production of particular antigens, which in turn, induce the recipient to make protective antibodies. The technique facilitates immunization against diseases for which fully satisfactory vaccines have not existed hitherto. It also opens up the possibility of engineering vaccines conferring protection against several infections simultaneously. A genetically engineered vaccine is already widely used against the liver infection hepatitis B. Another is helping to reduce the incidence of rabies in foxes in Europe. Environmental Applications A rapidly developing area of biotechnology is "bioremediation", the use of microbes to break down pollutants in the environment, particularly the soil. One approach is based on the fact that contaminated land (such as the derelict site of a former gas works) often contains micro-organisms capable of attacking chemicals that would be toxic to many other types of living cell. Their growth can sometimes be massively increased by introducing nutrients or air into the soil. The population of scavengers then breaks down the pollutants. Another technique is to introduce microbes specifically chosen for their detoxifying capacity. A third approach is to remove the contaminated soil, expose it to scavenging microbes under controlled conditions, and return it to the site afterwards. ...read more.


and have a normal lifespan. Critiques of Biotechnology Lobby groups in certain countries (especially in Germany) have opposed other aspects of biotechnology. One concern is the alleged unpredictability of releasing genetically altered organisms into the environment and the possibility that the new genes they carry may cause harm if they subsequently get into other living organisms. It can be argued, however, that the far greater precision of genetic engineering, as compared with gene transfers in nature, reduces rather than increases such dangers. In addition, the official committees that regulate biotechnology in most countries assess these risks very carefully before giving permission for particular experiments to proceed. Other anxieties centre on the impact of modern biotechnology in poorer countries. While its supporters emphasize benefits such as improved crop varieties and more effective vaccines, its opponents point to potentially adverse economic effects. In addition to consequences for peasant farmers, who could become heavily reliant on particular crop varieties supplied by multinational companies, there could be adverse macroeconomic repercussions. For example, the transfer into bacteria of a gene responsible for a highly desirable trait of an important cash crop (such as the taste of vanilla) might lead to that product being made cheaply in developed countries, with serious effects on existing producers. ...read more.

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