The study of human psychology offers many explanations for why human beings take the time to make art. It allows for one to express deep emotions, make a record of important moments, and even build bridges that span political, language, and cultural barriers. At its core, art allows us to connect with and reflect on some of the most universally shared life experiences and the most important qualities that make us human.
One of these shared life experiences that span generations across the centuries is our interaction with, and in, the natural world around us. Humanity bringing its creativity and curiosity to this experience results in biotechnology.
“At its simplest, biotechnology is technology based on biology — biotechnology harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet.”
-Biotechnology Innovation Organization
Biotechnology at its core is the technology that is built from or harnesses the biological world around us. It is integral to our shared history and has defined each time period.
Humanity’s First Introduction to Biotechnology- Fermentation
Humanity has been enjoying the results of biotechnology for thousands of years. The earliest forms of biotechnology can be seen in ancient Egypt where the fermentation process of yeast was used to bake bread. Strains of yeast were found in bread baking ceramics from the 4,500-year-old Old Kingdom of Egypt. Fermentation had also been used throughout ancient civilizations to make beer and other alcoholic beverages. While they did not know the specifics of the fermentation process, they were able to harness the natural world around them to add complexity to their food and drinks.
In the 19th century, Louis Pasteur was one of the first to study the process of fermentation to shed light on what was going on at the molecular level. He provided evidence that fermentation was, in fact, the result of living organisms and not spontaneous generation.
Carl Neuberg, known as the father of modern biochemistry, further added to the understanding of the molecular processes behind fermentation. One of the most important products of yeast fermentation besides ethanol and CO2 is glycerol. By altering the conditions of the yeast, certain products can be amplified. This understanding allowed Neuberg to pioneer the industrial production of glycerol needed for nitroglycerine explosives in World War I.
A more robust understanding of fermentation allowed for the discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming to be amplified by Pfizer’s already successful deep-tank fermentation technique to save lives during World War II.
Introducing Biotechnology in Agriculture
Humans have used their curiosity and creativity to collaborate with nature in agriculture. Farmers for thousands of years knew that rotating their crops in their fields led to better harvests. Specifically, planting legumes helped increase the amount of growth in non-legume crops. In the 1800s, Hermann Hellriegel discovered that legumes were taking nitrogen out of the air and replacing depleted ammonium in the soil. This process became known as nitrogen fixation. The availability of nitrogen is the limiting factor in crop production. While the Haber-Bosch process has allowed us to synthesize huge quantities of fertilizer, the environmental implications of using huge amounts of fertilizer could be catastrophic. Scientists around the world are trying to find ways to increase the nitrogen-fixing ability of plants to decrease the amount of topical fertilizer needed to sustain global food demands. This could come in the form of an engineered microbe with the capacity to dramatically increase nitrogen fixation.
Introducing Biotechnology in Genetics
A similar collaborative process with nature can also be seen in genetics. Humans have always bred plants and animals in a way that their offspring would have the best traits. Gregor Mendel’s discovery of ‘units of heredity’ now called genes, allowed for an understanding of what was going on at a molecular level. Then Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin articulated that differences in all life forms come from the unique ordering of the DNA chemical bases adenine, guanine, thiamine, and cytosine. With this understanding, human creativity is able to spark innovation. This is the basis for the revolutionary technology CRISPR-Cas9. This is something that bacteria and archaea use as a part of their immune systems to defend against viral attacks. Scientists were able to isolate it and make it transferable to any cell type. This genome editing technology is leading innovation on all fronts including making allergy-free foods and stopping malaria-carrying female mosquitoes from laying eggs.
Modern Day Amplification and Collaboration
Many of the biotech advancements we see today are simply the result of the dramatic increase in knowledge about the molecular world around us. Scientists develop tools that allow us to answer the fundamental questions of “how?” and “why?” The result of this search for understanding is that we can collaborate with the intrinsic creativity of the natural world around us. We can amplify processes that already occur in the biological world around us.
This kind of amplification is being spearheaded by biotech startups like Carbios. They have designed a mutated bacterial enzyme in response to the amount of plastic in landfills around the world. They have created a potential solution that would allow for endless recycling of the plastic we use. By studying microorganisms in a landfill, they found an enzyme that could break down plastic and by introducing mutations were able to accelerate the rate. The potential for restoration to something humans use every day is endless.
As we learn more about the molecular world around us, we as individuals and our societies by extension, become more tied to the natural world. We are able to confront the problems that our society faces with solutions based on science. We have exponentially increased our potential for success. As society continues to embrace these creative solutions from science, it will produce a more efficient and adaptive global economy.
So Why Care About Advancements In Biotechnology?
It’s our shared heritage and our future. It is humanity being hopeful about the potential for positive change and humble about how much we have to learn about the innate complexity of the natural world around us. Just like other art forms, it is our response to the most important moments and highlights what we value the most. It spans language, political, and cultural barriers by improving lives around the globe. It is a partnership with the world around us. Biotechnology is human ingenuity at its best; it is humanity’s highest art form.
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