The Biology Book: From the Origin of Life to Epigenetics, 250 Milestones in the History of Biology (2015)


Eduard Buchner (1860–1917), Károly (KarlEreky (1878–1952)


Since the 1970s, biotechnology has entered the common parlance. By biotechnology, we are referring to the use of biological systems for the production of useful products, which in the context of biology includes food, drink, and medicines. Under this umbrella term is included such diverse areas as recombinant DNA, genetically modified crops, biopharmaceuticals, and genetic engineering. But the seeds of biotechnology were planted over 10,000 years ago.

After our ancestors evolved from hunter-gatherers to actively producing their own food, they embarked upon the first steps as applied biologists by practicing artificial selection (selective breeding) of animals and plants—early biotechnology. Animals were first domesticated and later bred to maximize their utility as coworkers with humans in the field and to provide meat and fur. Plants were selectively bred to improve their nutritional value and to withstand the ravages of adverse climatic conditions and agricultural pests. Over the next several thousand years, cheese and yogurt were prepared from milk, and yeast was used to make beer, wine, and bread. This was the ancient beginning of biotechnology.

Nineteenth century biotechnologists focused their scientific attention on maximizing the process of fermentation—the conversion of sugar and starches in fruits to alcoholic beverages—one of the earliest chemical reactions observed and practiced by humans. In 1896, the German chemist Eduard Buchner showed that the presence of living cells was not essential for fermentation. Fermentation occurred when the products of living cells—ferments, now called enzymes—were present. This phase in the history of biotechnology was intimately tied to the study and practice of zymology or fermentation, in particular, of beer and wine. Problems of hunger remained to be tackled.

The Hungarian agricultural engineer Karl Ereky was first to coin the term biotechnology, which he used in the title of his 1919 book describing how raw materials from pigs could be upgraded to produce socially useful products. In his effort to create an abundance of food in famine-ravished Hungary after World War I, Ereky created one of the largest and most profitable meat- and fat-producing operations in the world.

SEE ALSO: Agriculture (c. 10,000 BCE), Domestication of Animals (c. 10,000 BCE), Artificial Selection (Selective Breeding) (1760), Microbial Fermentation (1857), Enzymes (1878), Green Revolution (1945), Genetically Modified Crops (1982).

During the nineteenth century, applied biotechnologists produced beer by fermentation. This 1897 painting of a monk in a brewery is by the German artist Eduard von Grützner (1846–1925).