Most of us are familiar with the concept of genetically modified crops, and can perhaps even identify one or two common crops or foods that have undergone genetic modification. But do you know how these new and improved plants make it from the lab, to the field, to the grocery store? Read on to learn about what’s actually involved in the process of creating a new seed using plant biotechnology.
Identifying desirable genes
In order to create a crop that is more nutritious or tasty, or more resistant to pests, chemicals, or tough environmental conditions, scientists first need to learn more about the genes that produce these desirable traits in existing crops. To do this, researchers chip or shave off small fragments from individual seeds; the genes contained in the fragments undergo extensive laboratory analysis while the rest of the seed is planted and then observed as it grows. During this process, researchers study and compare the gene map of a particular plant with the actual growing plant. If these individual plants then display traits that are useful, those traits can be matched with the genes identified in the seed fragments. This can be a lengthy process, however; for every one trait expressed in a commercially marketed crop, over 6,000 other traits are screened and tested.
Transferring genes from plant to plant
When scientists have identified a particular gene that is beneficial or useful, the next step is to insert that gene into the plant that has been targeted for modification. To do this, scientists use a technique called horizontal gene transfer. It utilizes the properties of agrobacterium, a type of natural bacteria that is able to pass genes on to plants. Much like a vehicle carries passengers to a particular destination, horizontal gene transfer involves genes (the passengers) attaching to the agrobacterium (the vehicle), which then carries them into the seed of the targeted plant. Once at their destination, the genes then become integrated with the rest of the plant’s existing genetic material.
While this technique was first pioneered by Belgian scientist Marc Van Montagu in the 1970s, it draws on the same principles that governed the breeding techniques used by botanist Gregor Mendel, known as “the father of modern genetics,” more than 150 years ago. However, while Mendel’s techniques typically transferred thousands of genes in each experiment, the sophistication and precision of today’s techniques mean that it is possible to transfer no more than a single gene at a time.
To study how they will grow and develop in a controlled environment, biotech seedlings are first planted in the lab, then moved to research greenhouses and, later, research field trials. In these tests, growing plants will undergo extensive analysis over a period of several years; in fact, 13 years and $136 million is the average investment of time and money required to bring a new biotech crop from the testing lab to market. Such a rigorous testing process ensures that the biotech trait is reliably expressed, that the modified crop is safe and offers maximum farm benefits, and that no unintended effects have resulted from the bioengineering process. Of the hundreds of thousands of plants grown during this testing phase, only the top performers will be chosen to produce the commercially available crop. The final decision on when a new biotech crop can be placed on the market is made by the government regulatory bodies that have overseen the entire testing process.
Seed production, marketing, and distribution
Once a new biotech seed has been approved by regulators, the seeds are mass produced by seed companies under strict quality controls to ensure that the purity and integrity of the biotech seeds are maintained. To achieve this, seed production fields are carefully isolated, and the seeds themselves are subject to ongoing quality tests. Biotech seeds are then authorized for sale, and the seed companies work with partners such as retailers, processors, growers, and consumers to ensure that new seeds are marketed and distributed responsibly.
Biotech seeds may now be in the hands of farmers, but that doesn’t mean that the plant scientist’s job is over. For researchers and scientists, working closely with farmers is a critical part of making plant biotechnology a success. To provide maximum value to biotech growers, the plant science industry works to educate farmers on the best agricultural farming techniques and practices for growing biotech crops. Furthermore, staying in close contact with farmers allows scientists to keep tabs on how biotech seeds are faring in the field, so they can identify any areas for improvement in future crop varieties.
Biotech seeds are not necessarily in use forever. From the very beginning, plant scientists have the end of the seed life cycle in mind, and older products are routinely replaced or removed from production and trade. When products are discontinued, seed companies work carefully with all stakeholders to ensure that the process is transparent and predictable, and that discontinuation plans and their appropriate application and management are communicated clearly.