Biotechnology is technology based on living systems and organisms. Specifically, it is the use of any biological process for agricultural, medical, industrial or environmental purposes. This includes everything from creating a new type of apple to developing a vaccine for a deadly disease. Biotechnology can also be used to clean up pollution while creating enough food and energy for the planet.

The History Of Biotechnology

Biotechnology dates back to ancient times when humans first learned to make beer with the fermented grain. People adapted the natural fermentation process, where yeast converts sugars into carbon dioxide, to make bread. Early farmers also domesticated animals for farm work and as food. They chose animals with desirable characteristics and bred them to have offspring with those same qualities. This is called selective breeding. Farmers also used selective breeding to produce varieties of food that were tasty and easy to grow. 

In 1919, Hungarian agricultural scientist Karoly Ereky invented the term "biotechnology." He used this term to describe how raw materials are turned into useful products through biological processes. In 1928, Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming used fermentation to produce penicillin. This is an antibiotic or medicine that fights harmful bacteria and infections. It has saved millions of lives and launched the modern pharmaceutical industry. Today, technologies can modify, or engineer, genes. Genetic engineering became possible after the discovery of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in 1953. 

Modern biotechnology led to the Green Revolution. Following World War II (1939–1945), scientists led by American biologist Norman Borlaug bred new varieties of corn and rice. These new crop varieties helped produce twice as much grain as traditional varieties. This was especially helpful for low-income countries with growing populations, such as Mexico, India and Pakistan. These countries were able to increase their food products quickly and avoid mass starvation. However, while the Green Revolution solved one problem, it created another. In establishing worldwide monoculture, which means growing only one crop over a wide area, it ultimately depleted the soil of nutrients and led to erosion and deforestation.

Biotechnology And Agriculture

Many scientists use biotechnology to discover new ways to efficiently and nutritiously feed people living in poverty. For example, some GM seeds are developed to grow in areas with little rainfall. This will help in arid, or dry, parts of the world. Other GM seed varieties are biofortified. That means they are designed to have more nutrients than traditional seeds. They can be grown in areas of the world where poor nutrition leads to high rates of infant mortality and disease.  

However, these GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are controversial. Many people are concerned that they may not be safe to eat. Also, critics worry about the effects they could have on the environment and human health. Critics believe that just one or two varieties of GM seeds could become the primary source of food worldwide. That means people will be forced to buy their seeds from large corporations, becoming economically dependent. This also means that food security around the world would be at risk if a disease or pest affected those crops. 

Biotechnology And Biofuels

Biotechnology is also used to create biofuels. These are fuels created from plants or algae. Biofuels are a less-polluting alternative to fossil fuels, which come from petroleum and coal found in the ground. Bioethanol, more commonly known simply as ethanol, is fuel made from corn, soybeans and other crops. Many vehicles can be adapted to run solely on bioethanol, but it is usually mixed with gasoline or diesel fuel. Brazil is the world leader in using bioethanol as a fuel source. Over 80 per cent of all vehicles in Brazil run on it.

Depending on the way the crops are farmed, biofuels can be carbon neutral. This means that while the crops are growing, they absorb carbon dioxide from the environment. When they are burned, they release it back into the air. Overall, the level of carbon dioxide stays the same. Fossil fuels like oil and coal are never carbon neutral because, when burned, they release carbon into the atmosphere that has been trapped underground for millions of years.

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