Introduction to Biotechnology

The Chambers Science and Technology Dictionary defines biotechnology as 'the use of organisms or their components in industrial or commercial processes, which can be aided by the techniques of genetic manipulation in developing e.g. novel plants for agriculture or industry.' Despite the inclusiveness of this definition, the biotechnology sector is still often seen as largely medical or pharmaceutical in nature, particularly amongst the general public. While to some extent the huge research budgets of the drug companies and the widespread familiarity of their products makes this understandable, it does distort the full picture and somewhat unfairly so. However, while therapeutic instruments form, in many respects, the 'acceptable' face of biotechnology, elsewhere the science is all too frequently linked with unnatural interference. While the agricultural, industrial and environmental applications of biotechnology are potentially very great, the shadow of Frankenstein has often been cast across them. Genetic engineering may be relatively commonplace in pharmaceutical thinking and yet in other spheres, like agriculture for example, society can so readily and thoroughly demonise it.

The history of human achievement has always been episodic. For a while, one particular field of endeavour seems to hold sway as the preserve of genius and development, before the focus shifts and development forges ahead in dizzy exponential rush in an entirely new direction. So it was with art in the renaissance, music in the 18th century, engineering in the 19th and physics in the 20th. Now it is the age of the biological, possibly best viewed almost as a rebirth, after the great heyday of the Victorian naturalists, who provided so much input into the developing science. It is then, perhaps, no surprise that the European Federation of Biotechnology begins its 'Brief History' of the science in the year 1859, with the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin. Though his famous voyage aboard HMS Beagle, which led directly to the formulation of his (then) revolutionary ideas, took place when he was a young man, he had delayed making them known until 1858, when he made a joint presentation before the Linnaean Society with Alfred Russell Wallace, who had, himself, independently come to very similar conclusions. Their contribution was to view evolution as the driving force of life, with successive selective pressures over time endowing living beings with optimised characteristics for survival. Neo-Darwinian thought sees the interplay of mutation and natural selection as fundamental. The irony is that Darwin himself rejected mutation as too deleterious to be of value, seeing such organisms, in the language of the times, as 'sports' - oddities of no species benefit. Indeed, there is considerable evidence to suggest that he seems to have espoused a more Lamarckist view of biological progression, in which physical changes in an organism's lifetime were thought to shape future generations. Darwin died in 1882. Ninety-nine years after his death, the first patent for a genetically modified organism was granted to Ananda Chakrabarty of the US General Electric, relating to a strain of Pseudomonas aeruginosa engineered to express the genes for certain enzymes in order to metabolise crude oil. Twenty years later still, in the year that saw the first working draft of the human genome sequence published and the announcement of the full genetic blueprint of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, that archetype of eukaryotic genetics research, biotechnology has become a major growth industry with increasing numbers of companies listed on the world's stock exchanges. Thus, at the other end of the biotech timeline, a century and a half on from Origin of Species, the principles it first set out remain of direct relevance for what has been termed the 'chemical evolution' of biologically active substances and are commonly used in laboratories for in vitro production of desired qualities in biomolecules.

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