ANSC 420 Lecture Notes - Neolithic Revolution, Starch, Norman Heatley
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Although not normally what first comes to mind, many forms of human-derived agriculture clearly fit the
broad definition of "using a biotechnological system to make products". Indeed, the cultivation of plants
may be viewed as the earliest biotechnological enterprise.
Agriculture has been theorized to have become the dominant way of producing food since the Neolithic
Revolution. Through early biotechnology, the earliest farmers selected and bred the best suited crops,
having the highest yields, to produce enough food to support a growing population. As crops and fields
became increasingly large and difficult to maintain, it was discovered that specific organisms and their by-
products could effectively fertilize, restore nitrogen, and control pests. Throughout the history of
agriculture, farmers have inadvertently altered the genetics of their crops through introducing them to new
environments and breeding them with other plants — one of the first forms of biotechnology.
These processes also were included in early fermentation of beer. These processes were introduced in
early Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India, and still use the same basic biological methods. In brewing, malted
grains (containing enzymes) convert starch from grains into sugar and then adding specific yeasts to
produce beer. In this process, carbohydrates in the grains were broken down into alcohols such as
ethanol. Later other cultures produced the process of lactic acid fermentation which allowed the
fermentation and preservation of other forms of food, such as soy sauce. Fermentation was also used in
this time period to produce leavened bread. Although the process of fermentation was not fully
understood until Louis Pasteur's work in 1857, it is still the first use of biotechnology to convert a food
source into another form.
For thousands of years, humans have used selective breeding to improve production of crops and
livestock to use them for food. In selective breeding, organisms with desirable characteristics are mated
to produce offspring with the same characteristics. For example, this technique was used with corn to
produce the largest and sweetest crops.
In the early twentieth century scientists gained a greater understanding of microbiology and explored
ways of manufacturing specific products. In 1917, Chaim Weizmann first used a pure microbiological
culture in an industrial process, that of manufacturing corn starch using Clostridium acetobutylicum, to
produce acetone, which the United Kingdom desperately needed to manufacture explosives during World
Biotechnology has also led to the development of antibiotics. In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered the
mold Penicillium. His work led to the purification of the antibiotic by Howard Florey, Ernst Boris Chain and
Norman Heatley, penicillin. In 1940, penicillin became available for medicinal use to treat bacterial
infections in humans.
Revenue in the industry is expected to grow by 12.9% in 2008. Another factor influencing the
biotechnology sector's success is improved intellectual property rights legislation—and enforcement—
worldwide, as well as strengthened demand for medical and pharmaceutical products to cope with an
ageing, and ailing, U.S. population.
Rising demand for biofuels is expected to be good news for the biotechnology sector, with
the Department of Energy estimating ethanol usage could reduce U.S. petroleum-derived fuel
consumption by up to 30% by 2030. The biotechnology sector has allowed the U.S. farming industry to
rapidly increase its supply of corn and soybeans—the main inputs into biofuels—by developing