History of Biotechnology - Origins of Biotechnology

Origins of Biotechnology

Biotechnology arose from the field of zymotechnology, which began as a search for a better understanding of industrial fermentation, particularly beer. Beer was an important industrial, and not just social, commodity. In late 19th century Germany, brewing contributed as much to the gross national product as steel, and taxes on alcohol proved to be significant sources of revenue to the government. In the 1860s, institutes and remunerative consultancies were dedicated to the technology of brewing. The most famous was the private Carlsberg Institute, founded in 1875, which employed Emil Christian Hansen, who pioneered the pure yeast process for the reliable production of consistent beer. Less well known were private consultancies that advised the brewing industry. One of these, the Zymotechnic Institute, was established in Chicago by the German-born chemist John Ewald Siebel.

The heyday and expansion of zymotechnology came in World War I in response to industrial needs to support the war. Max Delbruck grew yeast on an immense scale during the war to meet 60 percent of Germany's animal feed needs. Compounds of another fermentation product, lactic acid, made up for a lack of hydraulic fluid, glycerol. On the Allied side the Russian chemist Chaim Weizmann used starch to eliminate Britain's shortage of acetone, a key raw material in explosives, by fermenting maize to acetone. The industrial potential of fermentation was outgrowing its traditional home in brewing, and "zymotechnology" soon gave way to "biotechnology."

With food shortages spreading and resources fading, some dreamed of a new industrial solution. The Hungarian Karl Ereky coined the word "biotechnology" in Hungary during 1919 to describe a technology based on converting raw materials into a more useful product. He built a slaughterhouse for a thousand pigs and also a fattening farm with space for 50,000 pigs, raising over 100,000 pigs a year. The enterprise was enormous, becoming one of the largest and most profitable meat and fat operations in the world. In a book entitled Biotechnologie, Ereky further developed a theme that would be reiterated through the 20th century: biotechnology could provide solutions to societal crises, such as food and energy shortages. For Ereky, the term "biotechnologie" indicated the process by which raw materials could be biologically upgraded into socially useful products.

This catchword spread quickly after the First World War, as "biotechnology" entered German dictionaries and was taken up abroad by business-hungry private consultancies as far away as the United States. In Chicago, for example, the coming of prohibition at the end of World War I encouraged biological industries to create opportunities for new fermentation products, in particular a market for nonalcoholic drinks. Emil Siebel, the son of the founder of the Zymotechnic Institute, broke away from his father's company to establish his own called the "Bureau of Biotechnology," which specifically offered expertise in fermented nonalcoholic drinks.

The belief that the needs of an industrial society could be met by fermenting agricultural waste was an important ingredient of the "chemurgic movement." Fermentation-based processes generated products of ever-growing utility. In the 1940s, penicillin was the most dramatic. While it was discovered in England, it was produced industrially in the U.S. using a deep fermentation process originally developed in Peoria, Illinois. The enormous profits and the public expectations penicillin engendered caused a radical shift in the standing of the pharmaceutical industry. Doctors used the phrase "miracle drug", and the historian of its wartime use, David Adams, has suggested that to the public penicillin represented the perfect health that went together with the car and the dream house of wartime American advertising. In the 1950s, steroids were synthesized using fermentation technology. In particular, cortisone promised the same revolutionary ability to change medicine as penicillin had.

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