History of biotechnology

Article written by CEMP's team

The history of biotechnology is actually directly linked to that of human beings. Thus, even before being considered a scientific discipline, it was part of our ancestors’ daily lives.

In any case, in this article we aim to examine what are the main milestones in the evolution of this exciting knowledge field. Keep reading to learn all the details.


History of biotechnology timeline: the beginnings

Before going deep into the history of biotechnology, it’s worth remembering the definition of this scientific field. According to the United Nations’ Convention of Biological Diversity in 1992, it can be defined in the following terms:

Biotechnology is “any technological application that uses biological systems and living organisms or their derivatives for the creation or modification of products or processes for specific uses.”

Following this definition, we can say the history of biotechnology practically runs parallel to the history of human beings. 

Some of the main discoveries of practical uses of biotechnology include:

  • Agricultural practices linked to crop rotation, seed selection, crossing, etc. These are no doubt the most primitive manifestations of what would later evolve into a particular field of study within biotechnology. 
  • Animal domestication and, as a consequence, their employment in the production of nourishment and other tasks, is also a very rudimentary manifestation of biotechnological techniques.
  • Bread, wine or beer production are all practices directly linked with biotechnological science. Every operation related with fermentation and the use of yeast and food conservation in particular all clearly indicate biotechnology practices. Thus, even if the theoretical basis was unknown, the technique of producing beer can be dated back to the Sumerian civilization, almost 2,000 years b.C.

This long initial stage of biotechnology comprises thousands of years where practical and increasingly sophisticated knowledge has been accumulated, although still not seen through a scientific approach.


The history of biotechnology between the 15th and 19th centuries

During this particularly fruitful stage in the history of biotechnology, numerous scientific discoveries took place that started to organize and systematize previous knowledge. Besides, a scientific foundation was set for a great variety of biological phenomena, upon the basis of direct observation and experimentation. 

In this regard, we could cite the following main milestones in the history of biotechnology timeline during that period:

  • Invention of the microscope in 1590, by Hans and Zacharias Janssen
  • Start of the systematic study of cells, building from the first cell description by Robert Hooke (1665)
  • Advent of biology as an independent discipline (ca. 1802)
  • Discovery of proteins and first studies about enzymes (1830 – 18339
  • Publication of the theory of the evolution of species by Darwin (1859)
  • Works about genetics by Gregor Mendel, from experimenting with chickpeas (mid 19th century)
  • Friedrich Miescher manages to isolate DNA for the first time (1869)
  • Progressive advancements in knowledge around genetics (end of 19th century)


Biotechnology in the 20th century

In an analogue manner to other scientific fields, the 20th century represented an enormous advancement for the history of biotechnology.

Thus, apart from the fact that the term “biotechnology” started being used again, we can highlight the following discoveries throughout the century:

  • Developments in the use of industrial fermentation
  • Numerous findings and advancements in genetics and DNA during the first part of this century. This responds to the work of scientists such as Sutton, T.H. Morgan, Belozersky, Beadle, Tatum, R. Franklin or Watson and Crick (double helix), among many others.
  • Subsequently, the complete genetic code of DNA was deciphered (1961 – 1966) and the first experiments in genetic engineering took place (1972 – 1973)
  • The first biotechnology company in history was founded in the United States in 1976: Genetic Engineering Tech (Genentech)
  • Creation of the first transgenic mouse (1982)
  • Development of the technique for Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) in 1983
  • The whole century saw significant advances in biotechnological applications for plants and agriculture. In fact, the first production of transgenic plants dates back to 1984.
  • In 1982, the Human Genome project is born, culminating in 2003
  • Successful cloning of a mammal (Dolly the sheep) in 1997


A look into the future: biotechnology in the 21st century

At the present moment, the field of biotechnology is particularly promising, as scientists are deepening their knowledge around the advancements made in the last century and opening new pathways that hadn’t been explored before.

The role of biotechnology in the agro-food industry hasn’t ceased to grow and, of course, so has its role in the medical sector. Thus, even if faced with a number of important challenges, both in terms of finding economical funding as well as responding to bioethical questions, its perspectives are still very promising.

Without a doubt, this field of study will continue to bring about exciting news in the coming decades.

Now that you know the history of biotechnology a bit better, are you ready to contribute to it? If you want to complete your training and improve your professional skills in this particular field of study, our Master’s in Molecular Biology represents a wonderful option.

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