Arun Surendran

“Biotechnology”, the buzz word

Article by Arun Surendran. Co author: Sona Charles

Biotechnology, the wonder word coined by Hungarian Karl Ereky as early as 1919 is now a frequent part of all sorts of print and electronic media. In fact Biotechnology is not quite new; humans have been manipulating life forms to improve their way of life for millennia which initiated back nearly 10,000 years ago to early agrarian civilizations where people collected seeds of plants with the most desirable traits for planting the next year. Vast exploration of this arena has led to biotechnology being an essential component of our present life. In simple words, “We wake up with
biotechnology and we go to bed with biotechnology”.

Biotechnology- From scratch to the present

The fast development of biotechnology up to its current stage can be broadly categorised into three: (1) Ancient Biotechnology, (2) Classical Biotechnology, and (3) Modern Biotechnology

The journey from Ancient to Modern Biotechnology (

(1) Ancient Biotechnology

Common observations about the nature which could be moulded to suit the betterment of human life without much knowledge of the “Whats”, “Whys” and “Hows” behind the phenomena contributed to Ancient Biotechnology. Ancient Biotechnological innovations before the year 1800 can be termed as ‘discoveries’ or ‘developments’.

(2) Classical Biotechnology

The second phase of evolution and development of biotechnology termed ‘Classical Biotechnology’ existed from 1800 to almost the middle of the twentieth century. During this period various observations started pouring in, with scientific evidences.

(3) Modern Biotechnology

End of the Second World War paved way to many crucial discoveries which led to the current status of Biotechnology. Modern biotechnology provides breakthrough products and technologies to combat rare diseases, reduce our environmental footprint, feed the hungry, and use less and cleaner energy, and have safer, cleaner and more efficient industrial manufacturing processes.

A few timeline developments during these periods are listed below.

Year Events
Ancient Biotechnology
Pre 1600 Early domestication of animals and crops. Cheese, wine, bread use yeast and bacteria to ferment.
1600 – 1700

1590 –Zacharias Janssen invents the microscope.

1663- Cells are discovered by Robert Hooke.

1675- Antoni van Leeuwenhoek first observations of protozoa and bacteria.

1700 – 1800 Edward Jenner invents the smallpox vaccine in 1796.  Later in 1980, the WHO declared smallpox to be eradicated.
Classical Biotechnology
1800 - 1850 1838-1839 Matthias Schleiden and Theodor Schawnn propose all living things are made up of cells.
1850 – 1900

1861- Louis Pasteur proposes the “Germ Theory.”

1865- Gregor Mendel studies principles of genetics.

1859- Charles Darwin writes “Origin of Species.”

1900 - 1950

1911 – Thomas Hunt Morgan studying fruit flies discovers chromosomes carry genes.

1928- Fleming discovers penicillin, the first virus is discovered.

1944- DNA is the hereditary material.

Modern Biotechnology
1950 – 1970 1953-Watson and Crick describe DNA as a double helix.
1970 – 1980 1973- Staley Cohen, Henry Boyer develops ways to cut and splice DNA. Recombinant DNA. Restriction enzymes discovered.  Restriction enzymes cut DNA.
1980 – 1990 1982- Human insulin gene inserted into bacteria plasmid. Diabetes is treated with genetically engineered insulin instead of pig insulin. First genetically modified vaccine – hepatitis B.
1990 - 2000

1990- Human Genome Project funded by Congress. The project sets out to map the genes in human chromosomes and other species.

1994- Flavr Savr” tomato approved by the FDA. The tomato was genetically engineered to resist rotting.

1995 -Bt corn is designed to resist pests.

1996 -Dolly cloned by Ian Wilmut (Scotland) from adult sheep cells.

2000 - present

2001- CC “Carbon Copy” the cat is cloned.

2001 – Stem cell research

2003- Human Genome completed.  All the human genes are mapped.

2006- Vaccine to prevent cervical cancer caused by virus. HPV (human papilloma virus vaccine)

2010- Craig Venter has been successful in demonstrating that a synthetic genome could replicate autonomously. It is considered as a new possibility for creating life in a test tube, which could be planned and designed by human beings. In future, can we produce life as per our imagination?


How biotechnology influences day to day life?

It is indeed note worthy that our life starts with biotechnologically developed toothpaste, to drive car with biotechnologically developed fuels, and we also retire for the day with bedside medicines either to keep us healthy or to control chronic diseases, like diabetes. It is also possible that in future biotechnology will play a role in determining even our births and deaths. The importance and potential of biotechnology for the improvement of our environment and for better living is also noticeable. The best example is the capability of biotechnology to meet the demand of depleting energy reserves of fossil fuels by replacing it with bio-fuels, because availability of fossil-fuels are becoming limited to meet the demand of ever increasing population. In general, biotechnology uses either living material or biological products to create new products for their use in various pharmaceutical, medical, agricultural, and environmental applications, with the ultimate goal to benefit humanity.

How popular is biotechnology?

The past two decades witnessed the outstanding growth of biotechnology as never before. Meetings, conferences and workshops on biotechnology are becoming popular, where social scientists, industrialists as well as researchers from various disciplines like science, industry, and social work exchange views and ideas thus accumulating knowledge in this stream.

Biotech bloom- a double edged sword?

Apart from their beneficial applications, biotechnological principles has potential for destruction too, the best example for this is ‘bioterrorism’. A bioterrorist attack releases viruses, bacteria, or other germs to cause illness or death. Anthrax, botulism, hemorrhagic fever viruses such as Ebola, plague, or smallpox can be used as biological agents. Biotechnology from fiction, myth, and reality can be simply understood by reading the novel and watching movie “Frankenstein”. In this science fiction, Frankenstein has created a human life which became a monster; this monster became the reason for the destruction of Frankenstein, the creator of human life. Biotechnology has both beneficial and destructive potentials. It is, WE who should decide how to use this technology to help humanity rather than to destroy it.


What does the future hold?

The applications of biotechnology are so broad, and the advantages so compelling, that virtually every industry is using this technology.  Developments are underway in areas as diverse as pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, textiles, aquaculture, forestry, chemicals, household products, environmental clean-up, food processing and forensics to name a few. Biotechnology is enabling these industries to make new or better products, often with greater speed, efficiency and flexibility. Biotechnology has brought humanity to this level of comfort promising higher qualities of lifestyle.