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ABT 401 Agricultural Biotechnology/Boopathi NM/ Lec 1/ Background information

Agricultural Biotechnology: Background information

The first known use of the word
"biotechnology" was in 1917 by a Hungarian
agricultural engineer, Karl Ereky. He used it to
describe a system for raising pigs on sugar
beets as their primary food source. He
defined Biotechnology as "all lines of work by
which products are produced from raw
materials with the aid of living things" or
simply the use of living organisms to solve
problems or make useful products. While
most industries use mechanical devices machines - to make things, biotechnology uses
living organisms to make products of economic

the earliest industrial applications of

biotechnology involved the production of
ingredients to make explosives during the
First World War. Microbial fermentation
tanks were used to convert readily available
agricultural products into glycerol and acetone.

Biotechnology is ancient or even

prehistoric, going back at least 12,000 years.
The earliest evidence for domestication of
animals is the dog, ca. 12,000 years ago. The
above said definition can be used for most
agricultural production, although "farming' is a
more acceptable and widely understood term
for this activity. The earliest evidence for the
invention of agriculture is about 11,000 years
ago in SW Asia (the Fertile Crescent), North
China, and South China.

But the scope of biotechnology has been

altered beyond this original vision by a series
of developments in the life sciences. These
developments center on the ability to:

Apart from the traditional cultivation

of crops and raising of livestock, there are a
number of other older technologies that can
also be characterized as biotechnology:
Fermentation: Another prehistoric or ancient
biotechnology is the use of yeast. All of the
food processing systems such as brewing beer,
wine-making, baking bread rely on yeast to
alter the properties of a raw material.
Sewage treatment: Organic wastes are
degraded by the action of a complex
community of microbes. Sewage treatment
facilities provide an optimized environment for
these organisms to process the waste, while at
the same time allowing containment and
monitoring of the process.
These are older technologies that
have been around for a long time, and not
known as biotechnology at that time. Some of

Similar fermentation systems were

developed to grow microbes for the production
of antibiotics. Large scale production of
antibiotics was not possible until suitable
fermentation systems were developed, and
strains with higher yield of antibiotics were

isolate genes from any organism

modify and manipulate these genes
put these altered genes back into
various organisms

This is the heart of the "biological revolution"

that is going on at the moment. The modern
biotechnology had started some few hundred
years ago. Some of the most important modern
biotechnologies were the development of
vaccines and antibiotics.
The 19th century and early 20th century
saw the development of many mechanical
devices, and the 20th century had the era of
chemicals and electronics. But in the 21st
century we will likely see our understanding of
biological processes put to greater use in
changing how we live our lives. The following
are some of the industries that are being
impacted by this new technology.


Medicine - development of new drugs

to cure and control human diseases
(e.g. protease inhibitors to treat HIV
infection, TPA to remove clots in
blood vessels).

ABT 401 Agricultural Biotechnology/Boopathi NM/ Lec 1/ Background information

2. Diagnostics - new tests to rapidly and
more accurately detect pathogens in
the environment, food processing and

of application of biotechnology in agriculture


3. Food products - a wide range of new




4. Environment - new methods to treat

waste products, organisms to clean up

(bioremediation), and new sources of

5. Chemicals - production of feed stocks

for the chemical industry from

renewable resources, enzymes for

Many different scientific fields are

responsible for emergence of this biological
revolution. They are biochemistry, molecular
biology, microbiology, physiology, computer
science and what not?

Hence, a newer, refined, definition of

biotechnology was offered by U.S. Office of
Technology Assessment: "Any technique that
uses living organisms to make or modify
products, to improve plants or animals, or to
develop microorganisms for specific purposes."
How important is biotechnology? It is
estimated that sales of biotechnology
products is around $100 billion per year. Many
biotechnology companies have been started,
especially in the US in the 1980s. There are
thousands of biotechnology companies in US
and more elsewhere. It is generally regarded
that the US has a technological lead in this
area, but other countries are also placing
great emphasis on developing and expanding in
this area. In India both public and private
sectors started to invest much more than ever
in recent years.
biotechnology have been relatively slow to
reach the market. But now some products of
biotech revolution are available and many more
are in the development pipeline. Few examples

Tomatoes - with better flavor,

longer shelf life, thicker paste
Rice- enriched with provitamin A
(golden rice) and Iron.
Corn and cotton plants with
better insect resistance and less
need for insecticides
Canola that produces better,
healthier oils, and oils with
specialized uses
Corn and soybeans that tolerate
broad-spectrum herbicides such
as RoundUp
Hormones produced in bacteria to
increase milk production in cows
Enzymes for cheese making that
are produced in bacteria, rather
than from calves
Cows, sheep and goats that
produce therapeutic drugs in
their milk

The ultimate goal of this course is to

biotechnology are made and the scientific
principles that underlie this revolution. This
will also help you to assess the safety and
merits of the various applications of this new
technology. As with all new developments,
there are many, who think this technology is
dangerous. For some it is unethical or immoral
to tamper with the genetic material, they
believe this will lead to a loss of our own
"genetic privacy", and that no one has the
right to own and patent either organisms or
genes. Others question the environmental
consequences of these developments, that it
will lead to the development of more potent
pests, create new health problems because of
allergens and toxins, and reduce biodiversity.
Yet others question the socioeconomic
consequences of biotechnology, for example
the promotion of "corporate" farming, and the
effects on less developed countries. We will
examine these issues as we learn about the
development of agricultural biotechnology.

ABT 401 Agricultural Biotechnology/Boopathi NM/ Lec 1/ Background information

Box 1. Selected historical events that lead

to the development of biotechnology:
1810: Brown described nucleus as a central
feature in plant cells.
1838: Schleiden and Schwann proposed cell
1865: Mendal published his experimental
results on the inheritance of traits in peas.
1869: Meischer reported that DNA is a major
component of the nucleus.
1900s: Mendel's results are "rediscovered"
and the science of genetics begins. Laws of
heredity are confirmed in plants.
1875: Strasburger described chromosomes
1902: Sutton described chromosome theory
1903: Buchner discovered the enzyme
1911: Morgan proposed the gene theory: genes
are linearly arranged along chromosomes in a
definite order.
1928: Griffith discovered genetic transduction
in bacteria.
1935: Stanley isolated tobacco mosaic virus in
crystalline form.
1944: Avery, Mcleod and McCarty showed the
significance of DNA in hereditary transmission
in bacteria.
1944: Barbara McClintock discovered the
transposable elements.
1952: Chase and Hershey showed that the
gene was DNA.
1953: Watson and Crick invented DNA double
helix model.
1954: Sanger gave the complete structure of a
protein molecule (insulin).
1958: Beadle and Tatum discovered that one
gene one polypeptide hypothesis- one gene
regulates one definite chemical process.
1958: Crick proposed the central dogma of life
or molecular biology
polydeoxiribonucleotides (DNA).
1961: Crick produced direct evidence that the
genetic code is a triplet one.
1961: Jacob and Monad discovered regulatory
genes- operon concept.

1968: Nirenberg and Khorana proposed genetic

code for amino acids.
1970: Temin and Baltimore discovered reverse
1972: Khorana et al., synthesized entire tRNA
recombinant DNA technology.
1978: Nathans, Smith and Arber discovered
restriction enzymes.
1983: Engineered Ti plasmids used to
transform plants.
1983: Kary Mullis discovered polymerase chain
reaction (PCR).
1984: Jeffreys introduced DNA fingerprinting
to identify individuals.
1990: Human Genome Project officially
initiated and physical and genetic map was
published in 2000.
1995: The first genetically engineered potato,
resistant to the Colorado potato beetle is sold
in Canada. Canada is the first country in the
world to grow biotech crops.
1997: Nuclear cloning of a mammal, a sheep
dolly, with a differentiated cell nucleus was
2000: Craig Venter and Francis Collins
announced the first draft human genome
2002: Complete draft genomic sequence of
rice published.
(This is just to list a few well known historical
events. The list is still lengthy and growing)
Box 2. Human insulin
The first modern biotechnology
product (recombinant human protein of high
value) that went to market was human insulin
for treatment of diabetes mellitus.
History of recombinant insulin:
Lngerhans in pancreas.
1920's: Banting et al., detect insulin in
pancreatic extracts of animals.
1922: First use of insulin from animals to treat
human patients.
1979: Riggs et al., produce human insulin in E.

ABT 401 Agricultural Biotechnology/Boopathi NM/ Lec 1/ Background information

1982: Human insulin is the first recombinant
drug licensed for human use.
Box 3. Flavr savr tomato.
The tomato has been one of the first
targets of plant biotechnology for a number of
reasons: 1. Tomatoes are in the same family,
the Solanaceae, as tobacco. Tobacco was
widely used as a model for plant
transformation, so it was fairly easy to
develop transformation systems for tomato. 2.
There are a number of characteristics of
fresh market tomatoes that consumers are
unhappy about: quality, flavor and shelf life.
Most of the year, fresh tomatoes bought in
the store are of very poor quality and have
little resemblance to fresh garden tomatoes.
The basis for the FLAVR SAVR tomato, the
first whole food product of biotechnology, was
reducing the expression of polygalacturonase
(PG) in tomato fruit and thus slowed down the
softening of the fruit. They used the
antisense RNA approach to produce plants
with reduced expression of PG in fruit. After
several reviews by regulatory agencies (like
FDA), this product was launched in late 1994.