Perhaps the first thing to know about the “new” field of biotechnology is that it isn’t all that new. In fact, it’s been around for thousands of years.
If this sounds shocking, it’s probably because when most of us hear the word “technology”, we think of machines. But “technology” is really just a different way of talking about tools. And for thousands of years, humans have used biological organisms as tools for solving problems.
One of the earliest examples of biotechnology is the use of yeast to produce beer and bread. And early in the 20th century, researchers discovered a mould that was used to create penicillin—one of the most widely used antibiotics in the world.
OK, so what’s changed?
In the past several decades, science has allowed us to decipher much of the genetic “code” of plants and animals. Instead of cross-breeding corn plants to determine which traits cause them to, for example, grow taller or require less water, we can pinpoint those traits in the corn plant’s genetic map. Then we can isolate the right gene and transfer it into another plant to produce a new generation of plants that have the beneficial characteristics we want.
A matter of precision…and time
Throughout human history, traditional breeding was largely a matter of trial and error. Plant breeders tried hundreds or thousands of combinations in order to make educated guesses about which traits to promote. For understandable reasons, this was a time-consuming process.
With biotechnology, our plant scientists can pinpoint desired traits and skip potentially thousands of generations of plant breeding. This means better seeds are available to farmers faster, and better food is available to all of us.