Monday, June 18, 2007

Genetics to Biotechnology

It was always a challenging task for human beings to produce the ‘human-hormones’ outside a human body. The reward was well known. A disease caused by the lack of this particular hormone can be cured easily by injecting that artificially produced hormone.

Let’s take the case of Insulin. A patient of Diabetes requires regular injection of Insulin since their body fails to produce it naturally. Until 70’s, the major source of Insulin was domestic mammals like cow and pig. Due to close evolutionary relationship with human beings, this Insulin was almost similar to human insulin in structure. Hence, these sources used to work for most of the cases. However, there were side effects of this method – like skin rashes.

The advent of a couple of technological breakthrough changed the entire scenario. First, the DNA was discovered. Then it was established that the amino acid sequence in DNA strands are actually replicated in ribosome to produce different proteins. In other words, the DNA code on the chromosome works as a template to the protein produced in the cell. The other milestone was the discovery of Recombinant DNA – a form of DNA that is achieved by combination, insertion and deletion of more than one DNA strands.

Bacteria have a second set of DNA molecules other than those in their Chromosome. This is called a plasmid. The successful strategy by a company named Genentech to produce Insulin uses these plasmids efficiently. Genentech researchers produced artificial genes for each of the two protein chains that comprise the insulin molecule. The plasmid is then inserted into the bacteria named E. Coli. The bacteria multiply and at the same time produced either of the two protein-chains, in presence of lactose. At the end, the bacteria are killed and the Insulin chains are separated. The protein-chains are then merged to produce Insulin.

The fact is that the person who discovered Recombinant DNA – Herbert Boyer, started Genentech. He was funded by a venture capitalist, Bob Swanson. They formed the World’s first Biotechnology firm, with a capital of close to $1000. However, when they were ready to launch their product, Eli Lilly was the market leader in Insulin business with 85% market share. Genentech avoided the collision and signed contract with Lilly to market their product. In September 1980, Genentech went public. The share price shoot up from $35 to $89 within hours of trading and both of them became instant millionaires.

The same concept of Recombinant DNA is used even today in Biotechnology, to produce artificial proteins, and getting used in every sphere of Life. A chapter of the book DNA : The Secret of Life by James Watson, is dedicated to various biotechnological efforts. The most interesting one is described like this :

So-called dragline silk, which forms the radiating spokes of a spider web, is an extraordinarily tough fiber. By weight, it is five times as strong as steel. … the silk-protein producing genes have been isolated and can be inserted into other organisms, which can thus serve as spider-silk factories. This very line of research is funded by Pentagon … soldiers may one day be clad in protective suits of spider-silk body armor.

Something that started with innovations ended up making money once more. With the advent of Biotechnology, the prime focus of research in Genetics took a new turn to include commerce in the agenda. For human society, the research that started with Watson-Crick Double Helix model slowly begins to produce fruits in direct application.


  1. DNA The Secret of Life by James Watson : Chapter Five titled as – DNA, Dollars and Drugs: Biotechnology
  2. Biotechnology describes the Insulin production process.
  3. Wikipedia
  4. Protein Synthesis described.
  5. History of Insulin.

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