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The history of biotech in seven bite-sized chunks

Yesterday, an absolute gem appeared on's blog Around the Mall: an assemblage of objects that neatly summarizes the progression and history of biotechnology. Before you stifle a yawn, remember these are the same people who made a paper bag exciting.

Through these seven photos of seven objects the Smithsonian masterfully tells the story of how the first synthetic insulin, Humalin, came to be and how technology used for genetic research advanced in the process. These objects, acquired from the San Francisco company Genentech, can be viewed at the American History Museum in an exhibit called “The Birth of Biotech.”

From the blog:

Genentech’s work began with a discovery made in the 1970s by a pair of Bay Area scientists, Herbert Boyer [PhD] of UC San Francisco and Stanley Cohen, MD, of Stanford: Genes from multi-cellular organisms, including humans, could be implanted into bacteria and still function normally. Soon afterward, they teamed with venture capitalist Robert Swanson to form the company, with the hope of using genetic engineering to create a commercially viable product.

One of their first achievements was synthetically building the human insulin gene in the lab, a single genetic base pair at a time. In order to check the accuracy of their sequence, they used a technique called gel electrophoresis, in which electricity forces the DNA through a gel. Because larger pieces of DNA migrate more slowly than smaller pieces, the process effectively filters the genetic material by size, allowing researchers to pick out the pieces they want, one of the key steps in early genetic sequencing methods.

Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz. 

Previously: The dawn of DNA cloning: Reflections on the 40th anniversaryGenetic basis for anthrax susceptibility in humans discovered by Stanford scientists and Potential therapeutic target for Huntington’s disease discovered by researchers in Taiwan, Stanford

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