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A food biotechnology timeline

This timeline includes significant events that have led to the current use of gene technology in food technology. It also shows some predictions about future developments in the application of gene technology to food production.

Year Discovery

6000 BC

Yeast used by Sumerians and Babylonians to make beer.

4000 BC


Egyptians discover how to make bread using yeast. In China, other fermentation processes are discovered, such as the use of lactic acid bacteria to make yoghurt and moulds to produce cheese, and the use of fermentation to make vinegar, soy sauce and wine.
1300 AD Aztecs harvest algae from lakes as a food source.




Francesco Redi uses an experiment to compare two competing ideas that sought to explain why maggots appear on rotting meat. He observes that meat covered to exclude flies does not develop maggots, while uncovered meat did. This is regarded as one of the first uses of a controlled experiment.
1724 Anton van Leeuwenhoek uses his microscopes to make discoveries in microbiology. He is the first scientist to describe protozoa and bacteria and to recognise that micro-organisms might play a role in fermentation.


Cross fertilisation of corn

Cross-fertilisation in corn discovered.

1863 Paris hosts an international ‘Corn Show‘, featuring corn varieties from many countries, including Syria, Portugal, Hungary and Algeria.


Louis Pasteur invents the process of pasteurisation, heating wine sufficiently to inactivate microbes and prevent spoilage, but not ruining the flavour of the wine.


Ernst Hoppe-Seyler discovers invertase, an enzyme that cuts the disaccharide (sugar made of two molecules) sucrose into glucose and fructose. The enzyme is still widely used today in making sweeteners.
1879 In the USA, William James Beal develops the first clinically-controlled crosses of corn in search of higher yields.
1884 Gregor Mendel dies. Mendel spent 41 years studying the ‘heredity‘ factors of pea plants. Having received no scientific acclaim during his lifetime, not long before his death he says, “My time will come”.


Eduard Buchner demonstrates that fermentation could occur with an extract of yeast in the absence of intact yeast cells. This is a founding moment in biochemistry and enzymology.
1935 Andrei Nikolaevitch Belozersky isolates pure DNA for the first time.
1953 James Watson and Francis Crick propose the double helix structure of DNA and their paper is published in Nature. They achieve this discovery with the help of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins.


High yield wheat varieties

Planting of high-yield wheat varieties (later known as ‘Green Revolution‘ grains) begins in Mexico.


1973 Scientists successfully create a recombinant organism for the first time by transferring viral DNA into a bacterium. The biotechnology revolution arrives.

First biotechnology patent granted. US researchers awarded a US patent that allows them to make human insulin from genetically modified bacteria.


Researcher Steven Lindow requests US Government permission to test genetically engineered bacteria to control frost damage in potatoes and strawberries.

US patents awarded to companies producing genetically engineered plants.

Dr Kary Mullis invents the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), used to multiply DNA sequences.

1984 Dr Alec Jeffries invents the technique of DNA fingerprinting.
1985 The first deliberate release experiment is conducted by the firm Genetic Sciences who inject genetically engineered microbes into trees growing on the company's roof.


The US Environment Protection Authority approves the release of the first genetically engineered crop – a GM virus resistant tobacco plant.
1987 Calgene Inc. receives a patent for the tomato polygalacturonase DNA sequence, used to produce an 'anti-sense' RNA to extend the shelf-life of fruit. Advanced Genetic Sciences Inc. conducts field trial of a recombinant organism, a frost inhibitor, on a strawberry patch in the USA.

At the Waite Institute in Adelaide scientists modify a type of soil bacteria which causes Crown Gall (a disease that damages the roots of stone fruits) by removing the disease-causing gene and replacing it with a gene that protects the plant from Crown Gall. The GM bacteria is successfully tested on almond seedlings.

In the UK, genes are added to potato plants to make them produce more protein and increase their nutritional value. Research into other foods included removing allergy-causing proteins from peanuts.


Beginning of Human Genome Project in the UK and the USA with the aim of sequencing the full DNA of humans.


The first successful field trial of GM herbicide tolerant cotton is conducted in the USA.

The first food products modified by biotechnology, an enzyme for cheese production and a yeast for baking, are approved in the USA and UK, respectively. GenPharm International creates the first GM dairy cow for production of human milk proteins for infant formula.


Genetically modified tomato puree

The first genetically engineered food product, the FlavrSavr® tomato, receives US Food and Drug Administration approval.


Blue carnations Genetically Modified

Florigene Ltd

Australian Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee (GMAC) allows unrestricted, commercial release of a GM blue carnation in Australia.

1996 Ingard® insect resistant (Bt) cotton is grown commercially in Australia.
1997 Researchers at Scotland's Roslin Institute clone a sheep named Dolly, from an udder cell of an adult ewe.

Scientists in Japan clone eight identical calves using cells from a single adult cow.

40 million hectares of GM crops are planted globally, predominantly soy, cotton, canola and corn.

1999 In response to the exponential growth in discoveries and applications for the use of gene technology, Australia conducts its first ever Consensus Conference on gene technology in the food chain.

Australia’s first cloned cows – Suzi and Mayzi – are produced

Arabidopsis thaliana becomes the first entire plant genome to be sequenced. ‘Golden rice‘, a genetically modified variety with genes added which produce a vitamin A precursor, is created.

The genetic code of fruit fly Drosophila is published. Drosophila is the ‘lab rat’ of the genetics world and is used in experiments to investigate genes and gene function.

The Australian Federal Government passes the Gene Technology Act in December to regulate the research, use and release of GMOs in Australia.


CC the cloned cat

Genetic Savings and Clone / Texas A&M University

The human genome is sequenced in draft form and announced jointly by the private company Celera Genomics and a public consortium comprising the US National Institute of Health, Sanger Institute UK and other international research teams.

A single gene from Arabidopsis is inserted into tomato plants to create the first crop able to grow in salty water and soil.

The Commonwealth Gene Technology Act 2000 (Cth) takes effect from 21 June. In July GMAC becomes the Gene Technology Technical Advisory Committee.

First cloned cat, called carbon copy or CC.


Dolly the cloned sheep

Janine Young

Researchers sequence the DNA of rice, the main food source for two-thirds of the world's population. It is the first crop plant to have its genome decoded.

Dolly is put down on 14 February 2003 after it is determined she is suffering from a progressive lung disease. She is subsequently prepared and placed on display in the Scottish National Museum.

Office of the Gene Technology Regulator approves commercial release of GM cotton in Australia.

Australia passes two pieces of federal legislation to regulate cloning and embryonic stem cell research. The first, the Prohibition of Human Cloning Act 2002, (Cth), outlaws any form of human cloning, whether it be to generate tissues (somatic cell nuclear transfer, or therapeutic cloning) or a new human being (reproductive cloning). The second, the Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002 (Cth), allows researchers to access surplus human embryos (to obtain stem cells, under strict conditions.


Scientists unveil the final draft of the human DNA sequence

Office of the Gene Technology Regulator approves commercial release of herbicide tolerant GM canola crops.

UK approves its first commercial biotech crop in eight years, a GM herbicide-resistant corn used for cattle feed.

US Environmental Protection Agency approves the first transgenic rootworm-resistant corn.

The banteng, an endangered species of cattle, is cloned for the first time in the USA. 2003 also brought several other cloning firsts, including donkeys, horses and deer.

Japanese researchers develop a biotech coffee bean that is naturally decaffeinated.


Genetically Modifed canola

In Australia, despite regulatory approval for GM canola, most state governments place moratoria on growing GM canola in response to consumer concerns.

Australian researchers use gene mapping techniques to identify genes for tenderness and toughness in beef, allowing breeders to select stocks containing the ‘tender‘ gene.

CSIRO develops a test to distinguish between different strains or forms of the avian flu virus, and to provide early warning of the emergence of potentially lethal strains in chicken farms.

2005 Review of stem cell and cloning legislation and the Gene Technology Act 2000 (Cth)
2005 and beyond:

CSIRO researchers are working on alternatives to antibiotics to protect livestock against bacterial infections. By selecting animals with genes resistant to infection or using gene therapy, scientists hope to help producers reduce or eliminate their use of antibiotics.

Within the next twenty years a second generation of GM crops is expected with properties that have more direct consumer benefit such as elimination of allergens in food, increased nutritional content, and lower fat and oil levels.

Third generation GM crops may have properties like salt tolerance, drought resistance, drugs and vaccines within them, and plastic starter chemicals to create bioplastics.

Where do you think we will go next? How will scientific, technological and ethical decision impact on our futures? Discuss this with your class

Utopia 2050 - work sheet- (PDF 48 kb | 2 pages)