Early Biotechnology: Cheese, Bread, Wine, Beer, and Yogurt
According to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, biotechnology is “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use."http://www.cbd.int/convention/articles/?a=cbd-02, United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity: Article 2: Use of Terms. The concept of “specific use” involves some sort of commercial application. Genetic engineering, artificial selection, antibiotic production, and cell culture are current topics of study in biotechnology and will be described in later chapters. However, humans were using prokaryotes before the term biotechnology was even coined. Some of the products of this early biotechnology are as familiar as cheese, bread, wine, beer, and yogurt, which employ both bacteria and other microbes, such as yeast, a fungus (Figure).
Cheese production began around 4,000 to 7,000 years ago when humans began to breed animals and process their milk. Fermentation in this case preserves nutrients: Milk will spoil relatively quickly, but when processed as cheese, it is more stable. As for beer, the oldest records of brewing are about 6,000 years old and were an integral part of the Sumerian culture. Evidence indicates that the Sumerians discovered fermentation by chance. Wine has been produced for about 4,500 years, and evidence suggests that cultured milk products, like yogurt, have existed for at least 4,000 years.