The history of bioprocessing is a story of scientific innovation. Back in the mists of time, the fathers of this great science were driven by a desire to take the basest ingredients – such as bacteria and enzymes – and use them to cook up biological end-products to cure a range of ills for the benefit of their fellow Man, right? Wrong. They wanted to get sloshed.
It’s amazing the scientific advances that are made by people with a powerful thirst.
The Pre-History of Bioprocessing
The earliest form of bioprocessing was winemaking – which goes back way before the start of recorded history. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of fermented fruit drinks going back to the dawn of history – in 7,000 BCE. However, the range of libations available at the Neolithic Pub, The Caveman and Sabretooth, was fairly limited – until the Mesopotamians began brewing barley beer around 5,000 BCE.
Of course, there are those who say the wine-makers should put a cork in it, it was really the cheese makers who made history with the first big strides into bioprocessing.
The history of bioprocessing is also a story of happy accidents. Archaeologists believe that cheese-making began as a side-effect of early man storing and transporting milk in bladders made from the stomachs of cows and other cud-chewing animals. These inherently contain rennet, which would eventually cause the milk to curdle.
There is evidence of cheese being consumed as early as 5,000 BCE in various parts of Europe as well as Central Asia, the Middle East and the Sahara.
The first-known leavened bread dates back to around 1000 BCE, in Egypt. Again, this may have happened by accident as they were mixing water, grain and yeast to make beer – and got the proportions wrong which, instead, produced bread.
So, we now had all the cheese and wine, beer and bread we needed for a good ploughman’s lunch.
As they were sitting in The Caveman and Sabretooth, toasting their success and discussing the history of bioprocessing so far, those canny pre-history chemists realised that the key ingredient in all these processes was yeast.
The yeast species Saccharomyces Cerevisiae converts carbohydrates to carbon dioxide and alcohol through fermentation.
But, those slightly sozzled scientists realised, it didn’t just have applications for cheese-making, brewing and baking, it also had medical significance.
Saccharomyces Cerevisiae is also an important model organism for human cell biology and, as such, has become one of the most widely-researched microorganisms, which has vastly increased our understanding of the biology of the eukaryotic cell and, therefore, human biology.
By 500 BCE, the Chinese were using soybean curd (or ‘tofu’, in other words) to treat skin infections. This is the first known use of an antibiotic.
As we get into more recent times, we find that the history of bioprocessing is marked by the achievements of a few talented and hard-working scientists who made real leaps in our understanding of the medical applications of this fermentation (bio)process.
Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek, 1632 – 1723
This self-taught Dutch scientist is often referred to as “the Father of Microbiology”, indeed, it is thanks to him that microbiology was recognised as an actual serious science. In the 1670s he became interested in making lenses and built his first microscope. Using this, he discovered the first microscopic life – microbes – which he called ‘animalcules’ (which is Latin for ‘tiny animals’).
He went on to observe and record the existence of bacteria, spermatozoa and red blood cells.
Louis Pasteur, 1822 – 1895
It’s fair to say that the history of bioprocessing would have been a scientific dead-end, if not for the breakthroughs of Louis Pasteur. In 1857, he discovered that the yeast so beloved of brewers and bakers since time began, is actually a living cell. Twenty years later he showed that some types of bacteria could be used to kill anthrax cells.
By describing the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation, and (naturally) pasteurisation, his research led to a widespread understanding of how diseases are caused, how they are spread and (most crucially) how they can be prevented. This directly laid the foundations of hygiene, public health and much of modern medicine.
Sir Alexander Fleming, 1881 – 1955
Although antibiotics had been used in a crude fashion for over 2,000 years, they were not understood and could not be employed clinically in a coherent way. That is, until 1928 when a Scottish physician and microbiologist noticed – in a pioneering moment of bioprocessing brilliance – that a mold contaminating a petri dish caused bacterial death.
This extremely fortunate accident – witnessed by the right person at the right moment – led to Sir Alex identifying the world’s first broadly effective antibiotic, which he named penicillin after the mould Penicillium Rubens. That one discovery has been described as the “single greatest victory ever achieved over disease.”
Take that, disease!
And so the history of bioprocessing reaches the modern age. But, it’s time gentlemen, please – so, that’ll be a story for another round…
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