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The Secret History of Biotechnology


Biotechnology means using living organisms to produce food and medicine. Let’s be honest: It sounds like the kind of hyper-advanced thing that has to happen in a lab. In fact, Biotechnology is one of the oldest sciences and something that’s been around since prehistoric times. We can’t even say who created it, because it was used by our distant ancestors in the far past. Here’s what biotechnology can do, and how it’s been used through the ages, sourced from New Internationalist, Science Learning Hub and USA Today.

Domesticating and breeding animals and plants is biotechnology.

Selective breeding was really the first time when biotechnology was discovered, through mating plants and animals with desirable traits in order to make offspring with those traits. Corn’s a good example of this, bred specifically to be a better source of food. Around 5000 BC, early corn had smaller cobs and fewer kernels, and by 15000 AD, corn was now five times that size. During the colonial era, too, explorers would go on plant-collecting expeditions through Latin America, Asia and Africa, to create “gene banks” of plants, like the one single coffee tree from Arabia that was planted in the Amsterdam Botanic Garden in 1706, and from which most of the coffee grown today in South America came from. As for animals, dogs, sheep and goats are believed to be the first domesticated animals, used to provide help farming, or meat and milk. Today, just look at how there are over 100 breeds of dogs, all created for different purposes. It’s all an early, analog example of biotechnology.

Wine, beer, cheese and bread are all biotechnology.

Speaking of food, Cheese, yogurt and bread are all also examples of biotech, and we’ve been making those for eons. Same with beer and wine, which are created through fermentation. Fermentation is the process that microorganisms like yeasts, moulds and bacteria use to convert sugars into energy. We just adopted nature’s process and used it to create what we wanted. Of course, early civilizations discovered it by accident and had no idea why it did what it did, with some thinking it was a gift from the gods. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that Louis Pasteur discovered the science behind fermentation, including the discovery of microorganisms.

We’ve been creating medicine through biotechnology for a long time.

In ancient Egypt, honey was used to treat respiratory infections, and as an ointment for wounds. This was because honey acts as an antibiotic, and kills germs. It sounds gross, but in ancient China and Ukraine, moulds on soybeans and cheese were also used to treat infected wounds, since those moulds also contained antibiotics. It wouldn’t be until 1928 that Alexander Fleming turned this into one of the greatest biotech breakthroughs of all time: Creating Penicillin, the first antibiotic ever, by extracting it from the mould.

Of course, when biotechnology began, no one knew why all of this stuff did what it did until closer to the modern era, and now, there’s an entire scientific field around it, with plenty of careers for you. Now that you know where biotechnology is used, Centennial College can help you get that career with our  Biotechnology programs, where you learn the tools of the trade hands-on in our working laboratories, and can branch out and learn advanced topics. Meanwhile, Centennial College’s fast-track Biotechnology program can get you there faster, by letting you use your previous college or university experience to get directly admitted into the program’s second year, meaning you can get your diploma in as little as a single year. Either way, you’ll be properly trained in our college to work as a laboratory technician ready to lend a hand with the science that’s changing the world. By getting a career in biotechnology, you’ll be part of the next chapter of a story of hands-on, practical science, and you’ll help decide what biotechnology will do in our future.

Written by: Anthony Geremia