issue 217 - March 1991
A History of Biotechnology
The gene revolution may be sweeping us along at breathtaking
speed but biotechnology is as old as bread and cheese.
NI examines the science that began in the kitchen.
Illustrations by CLIVE OFFLEY
Biotechnology involves using living organisms in the production of food and medicine. It dates back several thousand years to when people inadvertently discovered the usefulness of one-celled organisms like yeasts and bacteria. The ancient Egyptians, for example, used yeast to brew beer and to bake bread. Some 7,000 years ago in Mesopotamia people used bacteria to convert wine into vinegar. And ancient civilizations exploited tiny organisms that live in the earth by rotating crops in the field to increase crop yields. They didn't know why it worked: Theophrastus - an ancient Greek who lived 2,300 years ago - swore that broad beans left magic in the soil. It took another 2,200 years before a French chemist suggested in 1885 that some soil organisms might be able to 'fix' atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants could use as fertilizer.
People worldwide have long recognized that genetic resources such as plants are linked to economic growth. Since ancient times rulers have sent plant-collectors to gather prized exotic species - in 1495 BC Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt sent a team to the Land of Punt (modern Somalia and Ethiopia) to gather specimens of plants that produced valuable frankincense. Likewise in modern times colonial powers mounted huge plant-collecting expeditions across Latin America, Asia and Africa, installing their findings in botanic gardens. These early 'gene banks' helped the colonials establish agricultural monocultures around the globe: a single coffee tree from Arabia planted in the Amsterdam Botanic Garden in 1706 originated most of the coffee grown in South America. And the British started growing Chinese tea plants in the foothills of the Himalayas in their first big attempt to establish an economic base using an exotic plant in the colonies. By the late 19th century, India had displaced China as the main exporter of tea to Britain.
Although baking bread, brewing beer and making cheese have gone on for centuries, the scientific study of the biochemical processes is less than 200 years old. Clues to understanding fermentation emerged in the 17th century when Dutch experimentalist Anton van Leeuwenhoek examined scrapings from his teeth under a microscope and discovered microbes. Two centuries later the Frenchman Louis Pasteur untangled some of the complex processes that yeast used in fermenting beer. The fermentation process was modified in Germany during World War I, to produce glycerine for making the explosive nitroglycerine. Similarly military armament programmes discovered new technologies in food and drink industries which helped them win battles in the First World War. For example, they used the bacteria which convert corn or molasses into acetone for making the explosive, cordite. While biotechnology helped kill soldiers, it also cured them and Sir Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin proved highly successful in treating wounded soldiers.
Biotechnology leaped forward when Gregor Mendel announced his belief that there were 'units of heredity' - later called genes - which did not change their identity from generation to generation but only recombined. The science of 'genetics' was born in 1906. Derived from the term 'genesis' which relates to the origin of a thing, genetics tried to explain how organisms both resemble their parents and differ from them. It was believed that every gene corresponded to specific traits directly. The science was used to promote the theory of genetic determinism, whereby life-forms are viewed as machines controlled by genes in linear chains of cause and effect. By the 1920s genetics was helping plant breeders improve their crops. But when applied to people the correspondence between genes and traits led to simplistic interpretations of human behaviour as resulting largely from genetic make-up. Combined with Darwin's ideas of the survival of the fittest, the new science was used to justify racism and sexism and underpinned notions of racial hygiene which led to the extermination of six million Jews by Nazi Germany.
By the 1940s, genetics had transformed the US into a leader of monoculture agriculture - which relied on a narrow range of genetic material and considerable high-tech. The Green Revolution arrived in the 1960s. Agriculture became obsessed with output. Use of artificial fertilizers increased. Seedless varieties became popular - especially fruit and vegetables - and so did hybrids which reduced the viability of crops over generations, forcing farmers to buy fresh seed every year. The world's gene pool has been shrinking rapidly ever since and many varieties have vanished for ever. Power and resources became concentrated among fewer farms, and farmers became dependent on the suppliers of seeds and inputs to provide them with crop varieties and fertilizers. Cut off from knowledge - and thus control - over the raw materials of farming, the farmers became less autonomous, and their capacity to conduct adaptive experiments diminished. If new varieties failed they had to wait for solutions from research stations. Alongside the dissolution of expertize among farmers - especially in the Third World - the global seed industry flourished.
The science of genetics was transformed by the discovery of DNA (or deoxyribonucleic acid). This is the molecule which carries the hereditary information in the cells. The chemical DNA had already been found in 1869 but was not taken seriously as the chemical basis of genes until the early 1950s. Two scientists, Francis Crick and James Watson, discovered that the DNA structure was a double helix: two strands twisted around each other like a spiral staircase with bars across like rungs. The structure, function and composition of DNA is virtually identical in all living organisms - from a blade of grass to an elephant. What differs - and makes each creature unique - is the precise ordering of the chemical base in the DNA molecule. This gave scientists the idea that they might change this ordering and so modify life-forms.
Soon scientists and industrialists were seeking to alter the genetic make-up of living things by transfering specific genes from one organism to another. They can now modify life-forms by altering the hereditary material at a molecular level. And since the US company Genentech became the first to develop technology to rearrange DNA in the mid-1970s, others have followed. Commercial uses include the development of interferon, insulin and the high-solids-processing tomato which has 20% less water and through which Campbell Soup expect to achieve huge savings. Transgenic animals have been created like the unfortunate onco-mouse designed to develop cancer ten months after birth. Companies have been assisted and encouraged in their research by the 1980 ruling of the US Supreme Court allowing genetically engineered micro-organisms to be patented. This means that virtually any life-form on this planet can theoretically become the private property of the company or person who 'creates' it. One of the greatest threats of the new bio-sciences is that life will become the monopoly of a few giant companies.
An estimated 400 pharmaceutical companies world-wide are conducting research and development into genetically engineered products and the industry predicts that by the year 2,000 over 1,000 genetically engineered new products will be on the market. Mistakes are bound to happen. And with something so powerful as genetic engineering, one mistake could have profound and wide-ranging effects. The heart of the matter is control, for the whole gene revolution is on the verge of becoming private property. We must impose tough controls on the genetics supply industry. We must work to make sure that the new techniques are in the service of all the global community.