Biotechnology is the application of scientific and engineering principles to the processing of materials by biological agents to provide goods and services. From its inception, biotechnology has maintained a close relationship with society. Although now most often associated with the development of drugs, historically biotechnology has been principally associated with food, addressing such issues as malnutrition and famine. The history of biotechnology begins with zymotechnology, which commenced with a focus on brewing techniques for beer. By World War I, however, zymotechnology would expand to tackle larger industrial issues, and the potential of industrial fermentation gave rise to biotechnology. However, both the single-cell protein and gasohol projects failed to progress due to varying issues including public resistance, a changing economic scene, and shifts in political power.
Yet the formation of a new field, genetic engineering, would soon bring biotechnology to the forefront of science in society, and the intimate relationship between the scientific community, the public, and the government would ensue. These debates gained exposure in 1975 at the Asilomar Conference, where Joshua Lederberg was the most outspoken supporter for this emerging field in biotechnology. By as early as 1978, with the development of synthetic human insulin, Lederberg's claims would prove valid, and the biotechnology industry grew rapidly. Each new scientific advance became a media event designed to capture public support, and by the 1980s, biotechnology grew into a promising real industry. In 1988, only five proteins from genetically engineered cells had been approved as drugs by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but this number would skyrocket to over 125 by the end of the 1990s.
The field of genetic engineering remains a heated topic of discussion in today's society with the advent of gene therapy, stem cell research, cloning, and genetically modified food. While it seems only natural nowadays to link pharmaceutical drugs as solutions to health and societal problems, this relationship of biotechnology serving social needs began centuries ago.