Then and now

Biotechnology existed long before there was a special word for it. Many of the principles and some of the techniques involved in biotechnology are ancient. For example, fermentation, in which microbes are used, has been practised for thousands of years to produce beer, wine, cheese, bread and yoghurt. Traditional animal and plant breeding techniques are also a form of pre-industrial biotechnology.

What is new about biotechnology today is that researchers can take a single gene from a plant or animal cell and insert it into another plant or animal cell of a different species (this is called transgenic technology).

Modern biotechnology also includes altering the genes within an organism to control the production of a particular protein. Changing genes in this way can go far beyond the changes that occur naturally during evolution, or the artificial, but slower, changes brought about by traditional selective breeding.

Other areas of modern biotechnology that do not necessarily involve genetic engineering include the use of enzymes and bacteria in a wide range of applications, such as:

  • waste management
  • industrial production
  • food production
  • remediation of contaminated land.

Animal breeding, pharmaceutical products and medical procedures are also benefiting from advances in biotechnology.