Biotechnology refers to the use of organisms, or the substances produced by them, in order to modify or improve the environment in which we live. It is often used in medicine, as well as food science and agriculture. While our understanding of biotechnology has rapidly and remarkably advanced in recent years, it has been in existence since prehistoric times, making it one of the oldest sciences. Early advances in the growing of crops for food or sale, as well as the breeding of animals, can both be said to be developments in biotechnology.
The long history of biotechnology has seen such milestones as the realization that fermenting fruit juice could be made into wine, and that yeast cells caused bread dough to rise. More modern biotechnology has led to the development of life-saving drugs, and other advances that change, hopefully for the better, the way we live our lives. One of the most famous and most beneficial developments in more recent history was the discovery of the antibiotic penicillin in 1928 by Alexander Fleming.
For our time, biotechnology has four major types of applications. The first is health care, and this is often what first comes to mind when most people think of biotechnology. The production and testing of new drugs is a major part of this, as are developing fields such as gene therapy, which is the use of genetic material to treat and cure disease on the cellular level. Studies which are done to determine how a person's genetic makeup influences their response to drugs make up the field of pharmacogenomics.
Biotechnology has also found numerous applications in agriculture. One of the most promising benefits to agriculture has been the increasing of crop yields through genetic engineering and transplantation. The nutritional content of food can also be improved by these methods, as well as the taste and texture of food products. Plants can even be engineered to be more resistant to pathogens and predatory insects. This can reduce the need for pesticides, which is generally thought to make food safer to consume, as well as making its production less costly.
Even industries unrelated to health care and agriculture can benefit from biotechnology. Some organisms can be engineered and adapted to restore or reclaim environments that have been contaminated. Waste products and pollutants can be removed and broken down by these engineered organisms. Marine environments can benefit particularly from this branch of biotechnology, because of the many man-made hazards they can be subjected to.