Biotechnology: Unlocking Nature’s Secrets

Course Overview

Units at a glance

Biotechnology refers to techniques that rely upon living organisms or the products of those organisms to make or modify products, to improve animals or plants, or to develop microorganisms for medical, agricultural, or industrial use. In this unit, you will review the essential foundations for biotechnology, specifically the biology behind biotechnology.

The first human experiments and work in biotechnology came as humans made the transition from hunting and gathering to an agricultural means of food production. Domestication of plants and animals led to significant changes through active human interference and selection. Changes in human society, including sedentism, would lead to many early innovations in biotechnology.

The first use of biotechnology, as you learned in Unit 2, was to improve the food supply. Biotechnology continued to be used for food production as early peoples learned how to ferment their foods, produce alcohol and vinegar, make cheese, and bake bread. These changes in foods improved the food supply and made it safer, and reduced the risk of foodborne illness.

Modern biotechnology requires an understanding of genetics; however, that understanding is relatively recent. Before biologists, microbiologists, and botanists understood genetics, they learned how to crossbreed plants and produce hybrids of their own creation. In many ways, this built upon the domestication of plants discussed in Unit 2 but was far more complex and innovative.

The study of genetics could not begin until the basic processes of inheritance were well understood. In the middle of the 19th century, an amateur scientist, Gregor Mendel, undertook the first defined scientific experiments in genetics, carefully recording the ratios of inheritance. While his work received little recognition at first, the study of genetics moved quickly from the 20th century onward. Within the first 50 years of the 20th century, DNA was identified and, by 1977, the first gene sequencers opened up new opportunities for the study of genetics.

In this unit, you will learn about industrial biotechnology advancements between 1800 and World War II. These innovations required new achievements in microbiology, a new understanding of enzymes and fermentation, as well as the ability to identify bacteria. They fueled industrial growth in various industries, from ammunition production to paints and varnishes, providing key ingredients needed for a growing and changing world.

Antibiotics revolutionized medicine. For the first time, the medical profession had a tool to combat infection, reduce the risks of surgical operations, and prevent many medical complications, like scarlet fever and gangrene. From the early research into penicillin to modern antibiotics, the existence of anti-bacterial drugs has changed medicine and altered the course of human life.

Agricultural biotechnology has moved far beyond early experiments in hybridization, leading to higher yields of food, less labor-intensive food production, and reduced famine throughout the world. Advances in biotechnology and botanical science have created plants that produce more, in less time and with fewer resources, through hybridization and early efforts at genetic modification.

Having developed the technology to sequence DNA, researchers began to contemplate creating a complete map of the human genome. This project would eventually involve laboratories around the world, working together to create a complete map of the 3 billion bases in the human genome. With this data, new projects and research began, looking toward a genetic understanding of cancer, various diseases, and genetic variation between individuals.

Industrial biotechnology offers environmentally friendly, renewable solutions to a number of industrial problems. Enzymes, fermentation and the manipulation of other biological products can produce various products, ranging from biofuels to polymers and plastics. Enzymes can replace chemicals, reduce waste, and reduce energy use in the production of various consumer and industrial goods, from paper to laundry detergent. In this unit, you will learn about various applications of biotechnology in production, industry, and manufacturing, while looking at other applications of the genetic technology studied in past units.

Modern agricultural biotechnology is centered on genetic technology and genetic modification. The use of transgenics allows scientists to combine genes from different organisms to achieve desirable traits, from pest resistance to increased vitamin content. These changes are often controversial and may not be accepted by the public. While a great deal of discussion about genetic modification and genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, continues, they are a prevalent part of the food supply, particularly in the United States.

In this unit, you will learn about recent advances in pharmaceutical biotechnology, including the development of new types of drugs, cancer treatments, and vaccines. These include a variety of biotechnological advancements, many relying upon the growth in understanding of genetics, genetic modification, and gene therapies. While some forms of biotechnology, like industrial biotechnology, impact your life only in distant ways, you may have a more personal understanding of pharmaceutical biotechnology. You’ve had vaccinations and taken medication. You may have used recombinant insulin or have had a genetically modified vaccination, like the HPV vaccination. Or you may know someone who relies upon the discoveries in pharmaceutical biotechnology to live and thrive.

Course Highlights

Trace the development of biotechnology through history.
Discover biotech’s innovative effects on our lives.
Examine how scientists are using natural materials in the industrial, medical, and energy fields.
Explore how scientists are adapting plant species for a changing world.

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