Recombinant DNA Fermenter, circa 1977

Fermenters like this one used genetically-manipulated bacteria to produce the first human insulin in 1977 and the first human growth factor in 1979. Credit: © SSPL / Science Museum" />Fermenters like this one used genetically-manipulated bacteria to produce the first human insulin in 1977 and the first human growth factor in 1979. Credit: © SSPL / Science Museum In 1972, Uni

Tia Ghose
Mar 31, 2009
<figcaption>Fermenters like this one used genetically-manipulated bacteria to produce the first human insulin in 1977 and the first human growth factor in 1979. Credit: © SSPL / Science Museum</figcaption>
Fermenters like this one used genetically-manipulated bacteria to produce the first human insulin in 1977 and the first human growth factor in 1979. Credit: © SSPL / Science Museum

In 1972, University of California, San Francisco, biochemist Herbert Boyer met Stanford University geneticist Stanley Norman Cohen at a meeting in Hawaii. The two then kicked off a collaboration that eventually led to the creation of the first recombinant DNA, a landmark that ushered in the era of modern biotechnology. By combining Cohen's expertise with bacterial plasmids and Boyer's know-how about restriction enzymes, the two found that they could use bacteria as tiny factories for producing many human proteins. Boyer went on to found Genentech in 1976.

In order to produce the proteins in mass quantities, the fledgling biotech company needed a way to grow transgenic bacteria on an industrial scale. To do that, they turned to the ancient art of...