It seems reasonable to assume that most people associate biotechnology with high science and believe that it has a fairly recent origin. It might therefore surprise them to learn that wine making, cheese production and the brewing of beer, all of which employ fermentation, are examples of biotechnology. Each, despite being employed for thousands of years, falls within the definition of biotechnology as an applied science that uses living things or their derivatives to produce products and processes for human use.
Much later came the development of the first vaccine by Edward Jenner at the end of the 18th century and then more recently the development of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928. Being medical, these examples are more likely to be associated with biotechnology in the public mind. Nonetheless, for many people, the strongest connection is probably with genetic modification. After all, it was the 1980s when modified bacteria were first used to produce human insulin and believe it or not, it’s now nearly 20 years since the human genome was mapped.
Today, biotechnology has the ability to design and transform biology in a way that has been described as more akin to engineering than empirical science. For example, tools such as CRISPR and genetic circuiting enable precision progamming of cells so that they attack cancer.
Also, assisted by AI which provides data on a scale and at a speed like never before, biotechnology is able to unravel the immense complexities of biology and apply them to revolutionising the efficiency of drug discovery. One consequence is that the search for new medicines no longer has to be tailored to specific targets. Instead, it is possible to design platforms from which multiple medicines may be produced, something now happening with the mRNA platforms used for the Covid vaccines. Diagnosis, treatment and management of diseases are therefore being transformed by biotechnology in ways that were almost unimaginable a generation ago.
The future is equally promising as many already emerging breakthroughs continue their development journey, including precision medicines, gene therapy, use of stem cells, nanomedicine and microspheres to name a few. Biotechnology has come a very long way, yet it may be appropriate to say that ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet!’