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  Biotechnology (Greek, ‘science of the manipulation of life’) is the application and exploitation of biological processes or organisms to man\'s own ends. It is a rapidly growing field. This expansion depends upon the new technologies of molecular biology such as genetic engineering, but the controlled use of biological processes by humans is by no means a modern phenomenon. For example, although yeast has been used for brewing and baking for thousands of years, the action of yeast was not understood until relatively recently. The possibilities of biotechnology have been realized as the biochemical and genetic mechanisms behind living processes have been elucidated. Louis Pasteur first demonstrated, in 1876, that the presence of microorganisms was responsible for the changes seen in fermentation. In 1897, Edouard Buchner showed that a cell-free extract of yeast could continue to support fermentation. The first enzymes were soon isolated and a wide range is now industrially harvested from specific microorganisms for use in a variety of products. A notable everyday example of the application of biotechnology is washing powder, which uses enzymes extracted from genetically engineered microorganisms adapted to life at high temperatures, so consequently the enzymes function best in the hot water used for washing.

The key processes in biotechnology are catalysis by enzymes, genetic transformation and biosynthesis. Biotechnology has been applied to medicine, in the production of penicillin, and to produce fuels such as alcohol. Agriculture has been revolutionized by the use of genetic engineering in crop breeding and in the development of new opportunities for food production, such as the use of fungi. Genetic engineering has been a reality since the 1970s and has enabled the production of drugs such as insulin and human growth hormone by fermentation of microorganisms which have had the specific human gene inserted into their genotype. The application of computers to the modelling of molecular interactions presents the possibility that molecules, such as drugs, may soon be designed for specific purposes and constructed using living cells. The future of biotechnology looks bright and the potential exists to improve nutrition, health care and the standard of living, and to use the new technologies to repair much of the damage done to the environment by previous technologies. The ethical implications of biotechnological progress must be seriously considered before new technologies are licensed for use, especially where the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment are involved. RB

See also transformation.Further reading Steven Prentis, Biotechnology.



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