The History of Biotechnology - An Introduction


So before introducing the biotechnology I want to share some brief knowledge about the legends of the Biotechnology field.
Here's a history of DNA, genes, and chromosomes as fast as possible.

Note: This is a history, not the definitive history. I am leaving a lot of important people out, but here are the highlights.

Malthus. English. 1798. Did some depressing math. The food security created by agriculture raised the birthrate. He proved that agriculture couldn't keep up. He proved that even successful species could end up battling for limited resources.

Darwin. Also English. 1831. He read Malthus before that famous trip to the Galapagos. By 1859 he's finished writing On The Origin of species. The idea of evolution was actually around before Darwin was born, but his big discovery was realizing that evolution isn't something like a tree that always grows towards some invisible perfect light. It's a lottery where nature has so many different tickets that it just can't lose.

Mendel. He's Czech. 1866. Monk and a scientist, which is actually pretty common at the time. He's doing this just a few years after Darwin's book. Using only pea plants he figures out that living things have dominant and recessive traits, but no one knows the mechanism so his work sits unused for about 40 years.

Miescher. Swiss. A few years later in 1869. To most, it seemed unrelated. Miescher sees something in the nucleus of cells. He even guesses it could have something to do with heredity. We have two meters of it in each cell and we have tens of thousands of trillions of cells, so clearly, nature thinks it's important if it gave us each about 20 million kilometers of it.

Bovari. German. 1888. He and some others, and there are always others, look at chromosomes, which are bundles of DNA so-named because they absorb dye nicely. Which means they can be seen under a microscope. Bovari suggests chromosomes are connected to Mendel's ideas about heredity.

Morgan. American. 1904. Uses his famous fruitflies to track how chromosomes affect heredity. He proves the link between Mendel's peas and what Miescher saw under the microscope. Chromosomes are linked to heredity and dominant and recessive traits, but people are still having trouble believing it when he wins a Nobel Prize 30 years later.

Levene. Lithuanian. 1909 to about 1923. Figures out that DNA, this stuff that nature thinks is so important is just four simple nucleotides: CA T and G.How can a four-letter alphabet that only makes proteins write a story complex enough to explain heredity?

Chargaff. Hungarian. The 1930s and 40s. Figures out that A's always linked to T's and C's to G's. It's a critical discovery and he's later upset when he gets left out of Watson Crick and Wilkins Nobel Prize.

Avery.Canadian. 1944. Brilliantly proves that DNA and its genes (the portion that makes proteins) relates to inheritance when they intentionally make a bacterial infectious by inserting DNA from foreign bacteria. He's widely considered the person who's most deserving of a Nobel Prize that never got one, in fact, what he did was so remarkable that many people felt he deserved two Nobel prizes.

Franklin. 1952. A woman in science in the 50s.Of course, she's left off of Watson and Crick and Wilkins Nobel Prize too, but she's actually the first person to get a photo of DNA.

Watson. American, and Crick.British. 1953. They knew from Chargaff that the nucleotides paired off, but without Wilkins showing them Franklin's photo of the double helix, they may have never beat everyone else to the solution.

Brenner.South African. 1960. Brenner figures out that gene DNA is transcribed into messenger RNA in a process called transcription. The transcribed messenger RNA transports the genetic information from the cell nucleus out into the cytoplasm, where it guides the production of proteins, which make our cells run.

Fiers. Belgium. 1972. Figures out that the parts of our DNA that make proteins are the genes. Genes are the sections that make the proteins that combine to make us.

Boyer and Cohen. Americans. In 1972. Sweet potatoes prove that nature does it, but they're the first ones to intentionally transfer a gene from species to species. It's so unique and it gets the bacteria to create foreign proteins, and this proves that genetic engineering is possible.

Jaenisch. American. 1974. Proves it's possible to engineer a mammal creating the first cloned mouse. And that incites a huge shift in medical research because now it's possible to do experiments on exactly the same mouse over and over again.

Montagu and Schell. Both Belgian. 1983. They work with the Americans and the French to create the first genetically engineered plant, a variety of tobacco.

Venter. American. Y2k. He and his team mapped the entire human genome, and tech at the time means many plant and animal genomes are also getting fully mapped. Diseases are discovered relating to mistakes in copying the genetic code.

Doudna American. 2012. The second woman in the bunch, with maybe the most practical discovery in genetics. In 2015 she figures out CRISPR, a way to use nature itself to edit or patch genetic code it's so natural that if you use it to create new food. It isn't even considered genetically modified because it comes out about the same way nature would do it.


This leaves us with today, where we have great hopes for not only wonderful new foods and medicines that are easier on the environment, but we can also expect to one day maybe cure genetic diseases entirely. You can see why I think it's wise to be rationally optimistic about biotechnology. Humans have accomplished a lot in managing to feed a world that just keeps getting bigger every day. You can't help but think that both Malthus and Darwin would be genuinely impressed with the progress.

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