How stinky socks launched the biotech revolution

Actually, there were two biotech revolutions. I will only argue that the second biotech revolution, which took place in the twentieth century, was launched by stinky socks. The first biotech revolution, which took place some 6,000 years before in the neolithic period, was arguably launched by beer. 

Biotechnology is, quite simply, the manipulation of living organisms or their components to make a desired product. (10) Beer is brewed with a living organism (yeast), and as such brewing is considered a form of biotechnology. Selective breeding, another form of biotechnology, was introduced around the same time as brewing, possibly to produce a more reliable source of grains for the beer. (4)

Thanks to the skills developed by early biotechnologists, humankind was able to develop a plethora of unique products and pets, from cheese to chihuahuas. (5) But the results weren’t always reproducible and the process was often less than desirable.

Take leather tanning, a process that involves removing flesh and hair from animal skin. Historically, tanning was done using urine, feces, and brain.(1) Urine, feces, and brains are all component of a living organism, so this qualifies as biotechnology.

Fortunately for tanners everywhere, in 1907 a sharp chemist named Otto Rohm had a better idea. Flesh and hair, Rohm reasoned, are biological in origin, and mammalian digestive system very good at breaking down biological molecules. Why not use digestive juices to tan leather? Rohm made an extract of digestive juice from cow pancreas and tested whether it could tan leather. It could. (2)

Meanwhile, Rohm’s wife, Elisabeth reasoned that digestive juice could also be used to remove stains from laundry. Think about it: most clothing stains are biological in origin–coffee, ketchup, blood–so it makes sense that they could be removed by digestive juice, right? Rohm tested whether his digestive juice extract could remove stains from laundry. It could. (2)

Digestive juice digests because it contains a special class of molecules, called enzymes, which are able to speed up a reaction.  Rohm partly purified a digestive enzyme called trypsin that is able to speed up the breakdown of protein, and in 1913 patented trypsin-containing laundry presoak solution called BURNUS. (2, 11)

It would be nice to say that BURNUS was a big success, but it wasn’t. It was expensive to produce and had a short shelf life. BURNUS was important, however, in that it was the first commercial product to utilize partly purified enzyme. (9) In other words, it launched the second biotech revolution: one in which purified biological components and isolated organisms are used to make a desired product.

At the time Rohm conducted his research the biological nature of enzymes was largely unknown. But shortly thereafter scientists demonstrated that certain enzymes, including trypsin and other digestive enzymes, are composed of protein. (7) And shortly thereafter this, scientists demonstrated that instructions for making proteins are encoded on DNA. (3) With this knowledge came the ability to engineer custom-designed proteins, a process called genetic engineering.

And what is one of the most successful products of genetic engineering? Laundry detergent! Modern laundry detergent, as well as dishwasher detergent, contains digestive enzymes from bacteria, some of which have been genetically modified to increase yield, or to improve stability or performance. (5) These enzymes are completely biodegradable, (9) and enable you to get the stink our of your socks at a lower temperature and with less harsh chemicals than laundry detergents of old. (8)


(1) H. Ancient methods of tanning. (2016, July 29) Retrieved from

(2) E. Company history Burnus group. (2016, July 29) Retrieved from

(3) K Genetic code. (2016, July 29) Retrieved from

(4) How beer saved the world. (2016, July 29) Retrieved from

(5) A. Kirk, O., Borchert, T. V., & Fuglsang, C. C. (2002). Industrial enzyme applications. Current opinion in biotechnology, 13(4), 345-351.

  • (6) D. Maurer, K. H. (2004). Detergent proteases. Current opinion in Biotechnology,15(4), 330-334.

    (7) J The Nobel prize in chemistry 1946. (2016, July 29) Retrieved from

    (8) C. Olsen, H. S., & Falholt, P. (1998). The role of enzymes in modern detergency. Journal of Surfactants and Detergents, 1(4), 555-567.

    (9) B Schäfer, T., Kirk, O., Borchert, T. V., Fuglsang, C. C., Pedersen, S., Salmon, S., … & Lund, H. (2005). Enzymes for technical applications. Biopolymers Online.

    (10) G. What is biotechnology? (2016, July 29) Retrieved from,did=79872.html

    (11) F. Who’s who: Otto Rohm. (2016, July 29) Retrieved from