History of Pre-20th Century Biotechnology

6 Biotechnologies Humans Used Before the 1900s

Woman looking into microscope with monitor in background
Andrew Brookes/Cultura/Getty Images


Biotechnology (or biotech as it's commonly known) is the process human beings use to take a living organism and transform it into a different product for their own use. Surprisingly, human beings have been using biotechnology to their advantage since paleolithic times—though not always intentionally. 

There are many important discoveries that have played starring roles in the evolution of the biotech industry.

Modern biochemistry and microbiology techniques use a number of molecular techniques that developed over the past few decades as a result of such discoveries as PCR, DNA fingerprinting, restriction enzymes, sequencing, and cloning techniques

However, even before we knew what a gene was, humans were manipulating cells in very industrious ways, either to produce food and chemicals or to improve crops. Here are some of the oldest biotechnological techniques that laid the groundwork for the biotech industry long before the term "biotechnology" was used.

1. Fermentation to Produce Foods

Fermentation is perhaps the most ancient biotechnological discovery. Over 10,000 years ago mankind was producing wine, beer, vinegar and bread using microorganisms, primarily yeast. Yogurt was produced by lactic acid bacteria in milk and molds were used to produce cheese. These processes are still used today to produce food for our dinner tables.

However, today's cultures have been purified (and often genetically refined) to maintain the most desirable traits and highest quality products.

2. Industrial Fermentation

In 1897, we discovered that the enzymes from yeast can convert sugar to alcohol, which led to the production of chemicals such as butanol, acetone and glycerol.

Fermentation processes are still being used today in many modern biotech organizations, often to produce enzymes used in pharmaceutical processes, environmental remediation and other industrial processes.

3. Food Preservation

The process of drying, salting and freezing food to prevent spoilage was being practiced long before anyone really understood why these steps worked or even fully understood what caused food to spoil in the first place.

4. Quarantines

The act of quarantining to prevent the spread of disease was in place long before the origins of disease were known to mankind. Isolating the sick demonstrates an early understanding that illness can be passed from an infected individual to another (healthy) individual, who then becomes symptomatic.

5. Selective Plant Breeding

Crop improvement (i.e., selecting seeds from the most successful plants and producing a new crop with the most desirable traits) is a form of early crop technology. Farmers learned early-on that using only seeds from the best plants would eventually enhance subsequent crops. In the mid-1860's, Gregor Mendel's studies on inheritable traits of peas improved our understanding of genetic inheritance and lead to the practice of cross-breeding (now known as hybridization).

6. Fortunate "Accidents" 

The discovery of natural biological processes has often come about by accidental. The surprising qualities of salt, fermentation, desiccation (removing moisture from food to avoid spoilage) and cross-breeding were almost certainly discovered by accident. So were some of our most important medicines, such as Penicillin