Did you know that the innovations that led to the development of modern biotechnology have taken place over a period that stretches back thousands of years? Read on for a look at some of history’s most important biotech moments during the time leading up to the discovery of DNA in the 1950s.
8,000 B.C.: Amazingly, the dawn of biotechnology as we know it today can be traced back more than 10,000 years. Around this time, humans began making the deliberate choice to alter plants and animals for domestication: the first food to be cultivated was the humble potato.
500 B.C.: The use of the first-ever antibiotics is recorded in China, where moldy soybean curds are used to treat infections.
300 B.C.: The ancient Greeks develop the plant breeding technique known as grafting in which tissue from one plant is attached to and melds with another plant. This is the earliest documented form of selective breeding.
1590: A jump forward of nearly two millennia takes us to the next innovation that will prove critical for future biotech development: the invention of the microscope by Zacharias Janssen, a Dutch spectacle maker.
1663: Examining thin slices of cork through a microscope, Robert Hooke, a prolific English scientist and inventor, observes that the cork is comprised of empty spaces surrounded by walls. He calls these spaces “cells.” Although Hooke did not fully realize the full implications or importance of his observations at the time, he is credited today with the vital discovery of the building blocks of all life.
1675: Another Dutch microscope-maker, Antonij van Leeuwenhoek, uses his improved microscopic lenses to discover bacteria. He later goes on to become the first person to document spermatozoa, muscular fibers, and cell vacuole. Today he is known as the “father of microbiology.”
1796: The world’s first smallpox vaccine is pioneered by English physician and scientist Edward Jenner. He previously developed a theory about virus immunity—based on country anecdotes—that milkmaids who contracted the mild disease, cowpox, never contracted smallpox, which was a leading cause of death at the time. In a now-famous experiment, Jenner inoculated an 8-year-old boy with cowpox, and then attempted to re-infect him with smallpox. Subsequent experiments proved that the boy had become immune to smallpox. The word “vaccine” comes from the Latin term for the cowpox virus, “Vaccinia”, which means cow.
1833: The first enzyme, the catalyst responsible for accelerating chemical reactions and metabolic processes in the cell, is discovered by French chemist Anselme Payen.
1838: Proteins, large biomolecules responsible for a huge range of functions within organisms (including, as we now know, DNA replication), are discovered by Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius.
1839-1855: The theory that all living organisms are made up of cells is proposed and developed by German scientists Matthias Schleiden and Theodor Schwann. Around the same time, Prussian physician Rudolf Virchow puts forward the theory that every existing cell originated from another one.
1859: “The Origin of Species,” the landmark book by Charles Darwin that outlines the bold theories of evolution and natural selection, is published.
1861: Louis Pasteur, a French chemist, experiments with processes for making food safer by using heat to kill harmful microbes. His technique “pasteurization” is one of the most revolutionary discoveries of the period.
1865: Following many years of cultivation experiments with pea plants, the Austrian friar and abbot Gregor Mendel publishes his principles of inheritance, which explain how different traits are passed on from one generation to the next. Through these principles, he coins the terms “recessive” and “dominant” to describe certain traits. Today, these principles form the foundation of modern genetic science.
1870-1910: Modern plant breeding takes huge strides thanks to Luther Burbank, who develops more than 800 new strains of vegetables, fruits, and flowers during this period. One of his most notable inventions is the blight-resistant Burbank potato, whose widespread planting across Ireland helps to end the potato famine. Around the same time, the first experimental corn hybrid is developed in the laboratory by botanist William James Beal.
1919: The term “biotechnology” first appears in print.
1928: Sir Alexander Fleming, a Scottish bacteriologist, discovers the game-changing antibiotic penicillin. (Fourteen years later, American microbiologist Andrew Moyer will pioneer a technique for producing large quantities of penicillin using cantaloupe mold stored in large tanks.)
1941: The term “genetic engineering” is coined by Danish microbiologist A. Justin. He uses the phrase to describe a new technique in which a specific piece of genetic material is transferred from one organism to another.
1943-1958: The DNA era begins. Canadian scientist Oswald Theodore Avery isolates pure DNA for the first time in 1943. The now-famous double-helix structure of DNA is observed and described by scientists including James Dewey Watson, Francis Harry Compton Crick, and Rosalind Franklin in 1953. The first test-tube DNA is produced in 1958. These discoveries will kick-start the modern era of biotechnological and genetic innovations that are sweeping the scientific world today.