From DNA to Beer: Harnessing Nature in Medicine and Industry

By Erika Mills

The outside of a penicillin plant featuring many cylindrical towers, tanks, and connecting pipes.

“Penicillin, which started life as a laboratory curiosity, has grown into a giant industry.” Yellow Magic, 1945
National Library of Medicine #10020220R

For some, the word “biotechnology” conjures images like super crops and cloned sheep—things created in a laboratory by manipulating DNA. While many equate biotechnology with genetic engineering and contemporary advancements in science, the practice of using organisms and biological processes as tools to make products like foods and medicines—biotechnology at its core—is an ancient one. Yeast has fueled the beer and wine industries for millennia, while scientists, in partnership with business, have worked to develop techniques that use microbes to prevent and cure illnesses over the last two centuries. From DNA to Beer: Harnessing Nature in Medicine and Industry, a new traveling exhibition, special display, and online exhibition, explores some of the processes, problems, and potentials inherent in technologies that use life.

Curated by Diane Wendt and Mallory Warner from the National Museum of American History, From DNA to Beer presents four case studies: the recent use of recombinant DNA in drug production; the “miracle” of penicillin and consequences of its access and overuse; the relationship of microbes, mammals, and people inherent in serum therapy; and the work of Pasteur and his relationship to the brewing and wine-making industry. The special display, available in the History of Medicine Division Reading Room, includes a selection of artifacts from the collections of the National Museum of American History and the National Library of Medicine that illuminate relationships between science, industry, and the public in historical context.

The companion website allows remote visitors to explore the artifacts along with additional texts and documents to gain a better understanding of the historical period during which these products were created and distributed. From DNA to Beer online features the Digital Gallery, an assortment of digitized, historical books and images on topics covered in the exhibition, from the National Library of Medicine’s Digital Collections and Images from the History of Medicine sites. Check out the “Learn More” section to view short, animated vignettes on recombinant DNA, beer fermentation, and diphtheria antitoxin. Here are some highlights from the exhibition:

Blue and white box with three white syringes, a needle, and a package of four needles displayed around the box.

Posilac, recombinant bovine growth hormone, Monsanto Company, 1994
Courtesy National Museum of American History
Following the success of human growth hormone (hGH), researchers developed a recombinant bovine (cow) growth hormone, which became available in 1994. The drug did not treat a disorder in cattle, but instead drug companies marketed the substance to dairy farmers to increase milk production.

A woman seated at a laboratory bench examines a petri dish under a magnifying glass. In the background a man examines an industrial fermentation tank.

“The Era of Antibiotics” by Robert A. Thom, 1950s
Courtesy National Museum of American History
Penicillin research and production are depicted in this painting by Robert A. Thom, commissioned by Parke, Davis & Company as part of their “Great Moments in Pharmacy” advertising campaign in the 1950s

Four men in white smocks extract blood from two horses in a stable.

Recovering the diphtheria serum from horse blood in Marburg, Germany, drawn from nature by Fritz Gehrke, 1890s
National Library of Medicine #101460904
Humans and animals have natural defense systems that produce antibodies in the blood to combat bacteria and other harmful substances invading the body. In the late nineteenth century, scientists investigating this immune response in animals developed new methods for treating diseases in humans.

Bulb-shaped glass flask with two long thin necks sits next to an upright brass microscope on a small metal stand.

Pasteur flask, early 20th century, and Microscope, made in France by Nachet et Fils, about 1860
Courtesy National Museum of American History
Pasteur used special tools and methods for studying the activity of microorganisms in the brewing process. Flasks with long curved necks allowed oxygen to get in while keeping unwanted microbes out. Improvements in microscope lenses made the identification of different microorganisms possible.

Come explore From DNA to Beer online for yourself at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/fromdnatobeer/index.html. To book the traveling exhibition or see when it comes to your town, visit the traveling exhibition page at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/about/exhibition/fromdnatobeer-bookinfo.html. Read more posts about From DNA to Beer here.

Erika MillsErika Mills is outreach coordinator for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.