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Agricultural Biotechnology: History, Science, and Society (October 2013): Historical Perspectives of Modern Biotechnology and Agricultural Biotechnology

By Brian R. Shmaefsky

Historical Perspectives of Modern Biotechnology and Agricultural Biotechnology

Robert Bud and Mark Cantley explain in The Uses of Life: A History of Biotechnology how the growth of biotechnology came some twenty years after James Watson and Francis Crick published the first paper about the double helix structure of DNA in 1953.  As mentioned previously, in the early 1970s, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen collaborated to make the first successful genetically modified organism.  These initial attempts at genetically altering simple bacteria encouraged many other researchers to pursue the technique in complex organisms such as animals and plants.  However, another large scientific endeavor was also required to ensure the accuracy and precision of genetic modification.  An emerging application of genetics called genomics was developed to understand the information written in DNA.  Human DNA was the first subject of the study, and success at sequencing the human genome led to genomic projects on agriculturally important organisms.  In Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Foods, Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Brown explain how basic genetics discoveries paved the way for the development of agricultural biotechnology techniques.

Agricultural biotechnology would not have been a feasible endeavor if it were not for the early commercialization efforts of biotechnology in pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals.  Two useful books on the commercial growth and business practices of early biotechnology are Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech by Sally Smith Hughes and From Alchemy to IPO: The Business of Biotechnology by Cynthia Robbins-Roth.  Another excellent book on biotechnology commercialization in agriculture is Creating Abundance: Biological Innovation and American Agricultural Development by Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode.  It explains how agricultural researchers selected biotechnology applications based on their feasibility for producing better crops and livestock.

Helpful introductory works accessible to students are Concepts in Biotechnology by Klaus Buchholz and John Collins, which provides background information on the basics, and Biotechnology 101 by Brian Shmaefsky, which focuses more on the commercial applications of biotechnology.

History of Modern Biotechnology I, edited by A. Fiechter, explains the evolution of laboratory and manufacturing techniques used in agricultural biotechnology.  The basic principles of general biotechnology applicable to agricultural biotechnology production are also addressed in Biotechnology: An Introduction by Maria Pele and Carmen Cimpeanu.  Agricultural biotechnology has unique historical aspects in that the genetically modified organisms were grown in the field and not in a controlled laboratory environment or production facility, as both of these books indicate.  Many new biotechnology strategies evolved through time to keep crops and livestock alive under unpredictable conditions.

Crops make up the greatest sector of agricultural biotechnology.  An accurate and highly readable history of genetically modified crops can be found in The Green Phoenix by Paul Lurquin.  The book primarily focuses on transgenic plants, which make up most of the commercially available genetically modified crops.

Agricultural biotechnology was formed by advances in biochemistry, bioengineering, cell biology, genetics, and molecular biology laboratory practices that were applied to analyzing and modifying the characteristics of crops and livestock.  In Feeding the Ten Billion: Plants and Population Growth, L. Evans explains that agricultural biotechnology follows the agribusiness model of maximum production while trying to reduce production costs and environmental damage.  Many genetically modified crops are designed to reduce agricultural chemical usage, protect against yield loss due to disease, or survive drought or other environmental hazards.  Agricultural animals are being modified to resist disease and produce consistent, high-quality food with less animal feed and veterinary care.  Cliff Ricketts and Kristina Ricketts reiterate these points in Agribusiness: Fundamentals and Applications.