2000s Archive

Friend or Foe?

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Opponents of genetically modified foods, of course, dismiss the arguments of Beachy and other like-minded advocates as hypocritical, coming as they often do from large corporations focused on making profits from large commercial crops in this country. But Beachy’s stand has been strongly expressed in his work.

Nine years ago, Beachy and French scientist Claude Fauquet founded a research program, the International Laboratory for Tropical Agricultural Biotechnology (ILTAB), that focuses on improving agriculture in developing countries. One of ILTAB’s scientists, Nigel Taylor, tells me he’s trying to make the cassava plant both easier to grow and more nutritious. Six hundred million people consume cassava on a daily basis, but in Africa the crops are being decimated by the cassava mosaic virus, spread by the whitefly. “We have plants growing in our greenhouse which have been genetically engineered to have an elevated resistance to that virus,” he says. “We hope to send this to Africa for controlled field testing by year’s end.”

People in the U.S. might not see any benefit in these techniques, says Taylor, and he doesn’t argue that they should be adopted in this country. But, he notes, the developing world, with 80 percent of the world’s population—projected to be 90 percent by 2050—must strive to produce more food from the same cultivated area.

To the average American consumer, the whole business may seem so strange that it must be dangerous. And it’s getting stranger still. The first generation of seeds were modified to have characteristics that made them easier to farm. Now work is being done on more complex trait transfers, which may lead to foods that will more directly benefit people: A tomato with more nutrients that may keep cancer at bay, and a rice enriched with beta-carotene that could possibly prevent hundreds of thousands of cases of blindness in the developing world were recently created; and, ironically, in two years’ time Monsanto expects to launch an oil that lowers cholesterol. Why don’t people just use less oil, you ask? Well, habits are hard to change, and making processed foods healthier could save lives.

Just as we may soon be able to cure hereditary diseases because of the mapping of the human genome, we may be able to shore up our plants to resist the vagaries of weather and insect infestation. The benefits of the new techniques are clear, yet with each advance will we face a drawback? No dangers to human health have thus far been documented from genetically engineered food, yet scientists admit that all technology carries a degree of risk. Are we manipulating nature, or simply recognizing our connection to it? The debate resembles an endless Ping-Pong match. We can’t promise to feed the world’s poor, and we can’t say that we don’t need our scientists to find new ways of farming. We know that moving forward can be dangerous. But if Roger Beachy is right about the world’s need for food, the greater danger may lie in standing still.

Breaking the code

The work done by Roger Beachy and other plant biologists has been built on the discoveries made in genetics during the past five decades. Recently, the genetic map of a human being was decoded; now, the role of each gene will have to be determined. Much the same process has been going on in the world of plant research.

Every living organism, be it a rat, a tulip, or a human, is made up of proteins whose creation is directed by deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA.

If DNA is the language of genes that codes for the form a species will take, then the language consists of an alphabet of only four letters: the chemical units known as A, C, G, and T. All living things share many genes—the ones that make basic biological systems work, for instance—with more than 50 percent of DNA not coded for any trait at all. That’s why we humans actually share a good percentage of our DNA with a banana, separated only by the number and the sequencing of that A, C, G, and T.

When plant genes are modified, it means that a gene is added that expresses a trait that might be desirable. In conventional plant breeding, tens of thousands of genes are exchanged between the parents through sexual crossing, even though there may be just one sought-after trait. Then, plant breeders begin a long, tedious process of “back crossing,” in which they attempt to retain the desired trait(s) and eliminate the DNA encoding for undesirable characteristics. When a plant is genetically modified by the new techniques, which people in the field call transgenic, a particular gene (or several genes) will be picked up from another plant or organism and inserted into the plant. Insertion must take place at the plant’s embryonic state so that the new gene(s) become integrated into the plant’s native genetic background and therefore all derived cells within the adult plant are transformed.

With animals, you would transform the egg. With plants, you transform the plant tissue. Scientists take a young plant and put it in a dish with sugars, nutrients, and growth hormone. This prompts cell division and results in the production of a mushy callus. That tissue is then picked off and placed in fresh medium, and in a few weeks the cells divide. Scientists refer to the result as target tissue. Then, one of two methods can be used to introduce a new gene. Scientists can use an agrobacterium, an organism which in nature can transfer genes from one place to another. Or they can use a “gene gun.” In this device, gold particles are coated with genes, pressure in the machine is built up, and shock waves allow particles to penetrate the cell. Those cells are then cultured and a complete plant is regenerated from the single cell that received the new gene. In this way, all cells in the plant contain the new gene, as do progeny from the plant.

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