There are many important discoveries that have played big roles in the evolution of the biotechnology industry. Modern biochemistry and microbiology techniques utilize a number of molecular techniques that have developed in the past couple of decades as a result of the discovery of PCR, DNA fingerprinting, restriction enzymes, sequencing and cloning techniques. However, before we ever knew what a gene was, humans were manipulating cells in some very industrious ways, to produce foods, chemicals or improved crops. The list below outlines some of the more historical biotechnological techniques that laid the groundwork for this area of study, before the term "biotechnology" was ever used.
- Fermentation to Produce Foods
Fermentation is perhaps the most ancient biotechnological discovery. Over 10,000 years ago mankind was producing wine, beer, vinegar and bread using microorganisms, primarily yeast. Yogurt was produced by lactic acid bacteria in milk and molds were used to produce cheese. These processes are still in use today for the production of modern foods. However, the cultures that are used have been purified and often genetically refined to maintain the most desirable traits and highest quality of products.
- Industrial Fermentation
In 1897 the discovery that enzymes from yeast can convert sugar to alcohol lead to industrial processes for chemicals such as butanol, acetone and glycerol. Fermentation processes are still in use today in many modern biotech organizations, often for the production of enzymes to be used in pharmaceutical processes, environmental remediation and other industrial processes.
- Food Preservation
Drying, salting and freezing foods to prevent spoilage by microorganisms were practiced long before anyone really understood why they worked or even fully knew what caused the food to spoil in the first place.
The practice of quarantining to prevent the spread of disease was in place long before the origins of disease were known. However, it demonstrates early acceptance that illness could be passed from an infected individual to another healthy individual, who would then begin to have symptoms of the disease.
- Selective Plant Breeding
Crop improvement, by selecting seeds from the most successful or healthiest plants, to obtain a new crop having the most desirable traits, is a form of early crop technology. Farmers learned that using only the seeds from the best plants would eventually enhance and strengthen the desired traits in subsequent crops. In the mid-1860's, Gregor Mendel's studies on inheritable traits of peas improved our understanding of genetic inheritance and lead to practices of cross-breeding (now known as hybridization).