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Study Notes: Biotechnology

Biotechnology was once called Applied Microbiology before the molecular biology revolution that started in the 1970s, and has a history stretching back many thousands of years.

The early biotechnologists were mainly involved in bread, wine and beer production and the first biotechnologists to publish their work were ancient Egyptians who recorded their biotechnological processes on stone tablets!

This kind of ancient biotechnology is still carried out today and some of the products of this biotechnology include:

  • Beer and Wine
  • Vegemite
  • Bread
  • Vinegar
  • Cheese
  • Yoghurt

Notice that all of these products are food or food-related and that the process of fermentation plays a major role in the development of some of these products such as beer, wine and vinegar.

A range of bulk and fine chemicals can also be produced by fermentation. All that is required is a suitable organism (usually a bacterium or fungus) that can carry out the particular biochemical steps required and suitable substrates (food) for the organism to use.

Products produced by fermentation include:

  • Alcohols
  • Nucleotides
  • Alkaloids
  • Organic acids
  • Amino acids
  • Pharmaceuticals other than antibiotics
  • Antibiotics
  • Polysaccharides
  • Biofuels such as hydrogen, methane and ethanol
  • Steroids
  • Enzymes
  • Vaccines
  • Human hormones such as insulin, growth hormone, interferons


For example the bacterium Clostridium sp. will produce organic solvents such as butanol and acetone from relatively simple mixtures of sugars and growth factors. The butanol or acetone produced is a by-product of the metabolism of the organism. The ability to produce these products can be increased by breeding and selection, and by recombinant DNA techniques.

For instance the production of the antibiotic penicillin from the fungus Penicillium chrysogenum has been increased at least 10,000 fold since Fleming first noticed that Penicillium sp. produced this antibiotic.

Initially biotechnology was called Industrial Microbiology but with the advent of DNA technology the name was changed to Biotechnology to reflect better the range of activities now undertaken. Biotechnology is of course an applied science as the rationale for biotechnology is to produce products that are better and cheaper.

Modern techniques of Biotechnology (recombinant DNA technology) involve the use and manipulation of DNA and include the following processes/products.

  • DNA sequencing
  • PCR to amplify specific regions of DNA
  • Parentage Testing
  • Sex determination in ‘difficult’ animals such as reptiles and birds
  • Restriction enzyme analysis to determine relationships amongst and between species
  • Gene technology including cloning of genes
  • Improvement of current bacterial and fungal organisms to increase production in industrial settings such as fermentation
  • Cloning of genes between species to enhance a characteristic of a species (eg genetically modified organisms such as herbicide-resistant canola)

The production of life/new life forms via these techniques, for example Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), is still very controversial and causes much debate and dissent in the community. However it should be remembered that much of biotechnology is not related to the production of GMOs but to the production of improved products.

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