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The Features Of 20th Century Biotechnology

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The 20th century, the first things to cross one’s mind when the word is given is certainly not anything concerning advanced technology nor world changing biotechnology. The technology might have been below average at the time but a lot of the world’s most important biotechnological advancements were discovered in this era. Although there still is no dictionary definition that has gained universal acclaim; Biotechnology is defined simply by as technology that is based of biology. “Biotechnology harnesses cellular and bio-molecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve lives and health of the planet” (Biotechnology Innovation Organization, 2019). Biotechnology has been used throughout time without consciousness of using the process; it is documented in the Bible where grapes were turned into wine, and there are scientists that still study and still discovering new ways Biotechnology can change lives. As prior mentioned the 20th century contributed largely to the comfort and simplicity of most hardships of the world to date, their discoveries shaped everyday experiences and even educated the world on its existence.


If years where accidents that changed the face of the world were being documented, 1928 should be amongst the top great years. In 1928, Alexander Fleming, a 20th century biologist discovered a substance that would steer medicine and the way bacteria causing infections were viewed. Alexander, who by the time never understood the importance his discovery would be, was investigating staphylococcus- a bacteria that can cause disastrous infections in patients (Science History Institute, 2017[a]). His big discovery which led him to be one of the worlds’s recognised names in biological science can be argued to be credited to his negligence and poor lab practices. Fleming stumbled upon his gold by not placing one of the Petri-dish containing the culture he was investigating- staphylococcus- in an incubator. The bacterium left on his laboratory bench was then introduced to a Penicillium pore from the outside environment, the pore was found to have destroyed the staphylococcus bacteria (Science History Institute, 2017[b]).

After years of studying the antibacterial substance and trying to synthesize it, Fleming concluded that penicillin is produced naturally and cannot be synthesized my chemicals, (Science History Institute, 2017[c]) but scientists after his time did learn to grow the antibiotic in controlled environment (encyclopedia, 2019). The discovery has been a major breakthrough in medicine because this substance destroys certain bacteria like the staphylococcus. Penicillin is used till to date; it’s used to treat many infections that are caused only by bacteria including pneumonia, scarlet fever, ear, skin, mouth infections and rheumatic fever which causes swelling of the heart valves (Medline plus, 2018)


Humans have been living on this earth for more than 200,000 years, evolving with time and trying to understand the world and themselves. There are different beliefs of where humans come from and why humans have the characteristics they have. In 1990 an initiative was taken to understand the genetic inheritance of human beings (NHG Research Institute, 2018[a]). The project, led by Dr. James Watson (NHG Research Institute, 2018[b]) took place over a period of 13 years and it required a large number of scientists from all across the globe, support from major countries and funding (Your Genome, 2016[a]). This project, which was and still is the largest biology project ever conducted required great minds from all aspects of science; Chemists, biologists, engineers, and physicists (Your Genome, 2016[b]). The goal of this project as explained by The Genetic Home Reference (2019) was to provide a complete and accurate sequence of the 3 billion DNA base pairs that made up the human genome and find the correct number of protein coding genes.

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The project ended in 2003 and the Science Museum (2000) reports the scientists were surprised by the complexity of genes. Although scientists were able to find more than 1,800 disease-causing genes and allowed researchers today to locate a gene suspected of caring a disease very early on rather than years, they also found sad surprises. Before the project began it was thought that there was about 80,000 to 100,000 protein coding genes in the human genome and they found less than 30,000 genes. The other surprise was that not only do humans have fewer genes, only 2% make up their genome and the rest was termed “non-coding DNA”. Although the project discovered a lot about the human genetic makeup and how some diseases can be prevented, the project still have not been of help cure some major diseases like cancer (SciShow, 2012).


Insulin, one of the many hormones naturally produced by the human body is a very vital hormone. It is produced by the pancreas and it allows one’s body to use glucose from the food eaten and use it for energy or to store it for later use (Endocrineweb, 2019[a]). The cells need the sugar taken as carbohydrates to function and keep a human healthy, once carbohydrates is consumed the body produces insulin so to convert the carbohydrates to glucose so the cells could use it or store it for later use. This process keeps a balanced sugar level in the body, but sometimes the body cannot produce this insulin hormone or not enough insulin is produced, this in turn causes the blood sugar levels to rise. The person who has this insufficiency is then said to have a disease called Diabetes mellitus (Diabetics UK, 2019[a]). There are two main types of Diabetes; type 1 where the pancreas produces little to no insulin, and type 2 is commonly genetically inherited or caused by a poor lifestyle (Endocrineweb, 2018[b]). In 1921, a Canadian physician named Fredrick Banting discovered the same hormone in the pancreas extracts of a dog and had the same purpose to that of a human. Banting began working with another scientist Charles H. Best to further learn how the substance could be used to help human lives. It is said after the two scientists where able to purify the insulin, they injected it into themselves and found that it lowered their blood sugar levels. They further experimented by injecting the serum to diabetic dogs (Vox 2016, cited in Banting et al, 1922). Their experiment was a success and later was used to successfully treat a boy with diabetes (Encyclopaedia Britannica blog, 2011).

Insulin is now used globally by type 1 diabetes patients all over the globe; it can be administered by a doctor and also by a patient at the comfort of their own home.


It’s no doubt the 20th century discoveries have enriched and elongated human life. Many of the disastrous inheritable genes can be eradicated or dealt with before they multiply. Of the three discoveries discussed above I believe the Human Genome Project was more impactful to science. It might have cost billions of American dollars and might have had disappointments but if the 13 year project wasn’t conducted there would be a lot more confusion when it comes to genetics. Mutations would not be detected in time to be fixed or removed, there would be people living in fear and isolation due to their misunderstood mutations. So I believe the Human Genome Project was a necessity.


  1. Biotechnology Innovation Organization. (2019)Biotech to improve lives. [Online] Available at:
  2. Encyclopaedia Britannica Blog. (2011) First human treatment. [Online] Available at:
  3. Diabetics UK. (2019[a]) Causes of diabetes. [Online] Available at:
  4. Endocrineweb. (2019[a]) What is Insulin. [Online] Available at:
  5. Endocrineweb. (2018[b]) Types of diabetes. [Online] Available at:
  6. Encyclopedia. ( 2019) Synthetic production of Penicillin. [Online] Available at:
  7. NHG Research Institute. (2018[a]). Available at:
  8. NHG Research Institute. (2018[b]) Who led the research. [Online] Available at:
  9. The Genetic Home Reference. (2019) Goal of the research. [Online] Available at:
  10. Medline plus. ( 2018) Uses of Penicillin. [Online] Available at:
  11. Science History Institute. 2017[a]) Staphycoccus. [Online] Availabele at:
  12. Science History Institute. (2017[b]) Penicillium Pore. [Online] Available at:
  13. Science History Institute. (2017[c]) Production of penicillin. [Online] Availabe at:
  14. Vox. (2016) Insulin Experiments. [Online] Available at:
  15. Science Museum. (2000) Results of the project. [Online] Available at:
  16. Your Genome. (2016[a]). https://www,
  17. Your Genome. (2016[b]) Who was involved. [Online] Available at: https://www,
  18. (ScieShow. (2012) Surprises to the results. [Online] Available at:

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The Features Of 20th Century Biotechnology. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from
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