While the three major areas of modern biotechnology—medicine, agriculture, and fuels—have a great deal of terminology in common, each of these sectors also has its own distinct set of important terms and definitions. Read on for an overview of the key words and phrases that can help you understand more about agricultural biotechnology.
Agricultural biotechnology—A range of tools and techniques, both traditional and modern, that alter living organisms or parts of living organisms with the goal of making or modifying products, improving animals or plants, or developing microorganisms to use for specific agricultural purposes.
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)—A soil bacterium with the ability to produce toxins that are deadly to some pests, but non-toxic to mammals, including humans. Some crops have now been genetically engineered to carry the Bt gene, which allows them to produce toxins and thus protect themselves from pests. Commercially available Bt crops include Bt corn and Bt cotton.
Biopharming—The production of pharmaceuticals, including antibodies and edible vaccines, in domestic animals or plants.
Chromosome—Located inside the nucleus of plant and animal cells, chromosomes are thread-like structures, made of protein and a single molecule of DNA, which contains genes. These molecules are a key part of the process that ensures that DNA is copied and distributed accurately during cell division.
Clone—A genetic replica of an organism that was created without sexual reproduction.
Cross-pollination—The process of using pollen from one plant to fertilize another plant of the same species. Cross-pollination agents include wind, insects or other organisms, and humans.
DNA—The chemical substance from which genes are made, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is a long molecule with a distinctive double-helix shape; each molecule is made of nucleotides, which in turn are composed of phosphates, sugars, and derivatives of adenine (A), guanine (G) (purines), cytosine (C), and thymine (T) (pyrimidines), the four bases. The sequence order of the four bases inside the DNA strand is what determines the type of genetic information the strand contains and the biochemical information to produce the proteins of the cell.
Field trial—A testing process that is performed outside a laboratory setting, and where factors such as location, plot size, and methodology are carefully controlled. Field trials typically test either a new technique or a new variety of crop, including biotech-derived varieties.
Gene—The central functional and physical unit of heredity. Genes are contained within chromosomes, and each gene encodes a specific functional product (such as an RNA molecule or a protein).
Gene expression—The influence of one or more genes on an organism’s biochemistry and physiology, specifically in terms of how such genes change an organism’s outward appearance.
Gene flow—The movement of genes between genetically compatible individuals or populations.
Gene mapping—Used for plant and animal breeding, this is the process of determining where specific genes are physically located on a chromosome.
Gene (DNA) sequencing—Determining the precise sequence in which nucleotide bases occur in a strand of DNA; this process helps to establish why particular genes behave as they do.
Genetic engineering—Using the techniques of modern molecular biology (such as recombinant DNA techniques) to manipulate an organism’s genes, either by introducing, rearranging, or eliminating specific genes.
Genetic modification—The use of either genetic engineering or more traditional methods to produce heritable improvements, generally intended for specific uses, in plants or animals.
Genome—All the genetic material contained in all the chromosomes of a specific organism.
Genotype—An individual’s genetic identity. Often evident in an individual’s outward characteristics, but may also be reflected non-visually at the biochemical level.
Herbicide-tolerant crops—Crops that can survive certain herbicide applications as a result of the incorporation of specific genes, a process that may have taken place either through traditional breeding methods or through genetic engineering.
Hybrid—The offspring produced by a cross between any two organisms of different genotypes.
Identity preservation—Keeping one particular crop type segregated from others during all stages from production and processing through to distribution.
Molecular biology—The study of how proteins and nucleic acids are structured and how they function within biological systems.
Mutation—Any heritable change in an organism’s DNA structure or sequence.
Organic agriculture—An approach to agricultural production that does not make use of synthetic inputs and that does not permit GMO to be used.
Phenotype—An organism’s visual or measurable characteristics; in other words, how it appears outwardly.
Plant breeding—The use of techniques, such as selection or cross-pollination, involving crossing plants to produce specific desired traits that can be passed down to future plant generations.
Recombinant DNA (rDNA)—A DNA molecule that has been formed by using recombinant DNA technology to join different segments of DNA together.
Recombinant DNA technology—Techniques used to join DNA segments together in a cell-free system; that is, an environment outside living cells or organisms, such as a test tube. Under certain conditions, a molecule of recombinant DNA can be introduced into a cell, where it will be able to replicate, or copy itself.
Ribonucleic acid (RNA)—A chemical substance made up of nucleotides (see “DNA”), RNAs serve to carry information from DNA within cells. They can be single- or double-stranded.
Selective breeding—Deliberately crossing or mating organisms to produce offspring with particular desired characteristics.
Traditional breeding—Modifying animals and plants through selective breeding. Traditional plant breeding practices may include such biotech aspects as tissue culture and mutational breeding.
Variety—A subdivision of a species; used to describe a stable and uniform group of individual plants that is genetically distinct from other groups of individuals within the same species.