Applications of biotechnology

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Genetic engineering techniques were first developed in the early 1970s and rapidly adopted for various commercial purposes.

The first was the commercialization of an example given above, the transfer to a bacterium of a human gene for insulin, to produce human insulin. Today, the majority of insulin used by diabetics is genetically engineered and produced by bacteria, instead of extracting insulin from farm animals. Other applications followed quickly, including a wide range of pharmaceuticals, foods, and crops. The first commercial food application was chymosin, a genetically engineered enzyme used in cheesemaking and produced by bacteria as an alternative to rennet, which comes from animal sources. The development of genetically engineered chymosin allowed true vegetarian cheeses and also, like insulin, saved unnecessary slaughter of farm animals.

The first genetically engineered wholefood crop was the now defunct Flavr Savr tomato, developed by the small California biotech firm Calgene and promoted as a longer shelf-life tomato, to provide (in their words) "summer fresh taste" in January when fresh tomatoes were at a premium in northern winter groceries. Since this release in 1994, a series of other genetically engineered crops have been approved and released for commercial production. These include herbicide-tolerant varieties of corn, soy, canola, and cotton, disease-resistant papaya and squash, and insect-protected corn, soybean cotton, and canola. Some of the commercial genetically engineered varieties were highly successful, while others, like the Flavr Savr tomato, failed and are no longer grown.

The biggest success stories are the major US field crops. In 2005, genetically engineered soybeans accounted for 87% of the total US soybean acreage, genetically engineered cotton claimed 79% of the cotton acreage, and genetically engineered corn was grown on over half of the corn acreage. In addition, genetically engineered canola was grown on three-quarters of the Canadian and US acreage of that heart-healthy oilseed, and the virus-resistant genetically engineered papaya is credited with saving the Hawaiian papaya industry from the devastating ravages of the papaya ringspot virus. There can be no argument that the introduction of genetically engineered crop varieties has had a dramatic rise and impact on US agriculture.

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