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Genetic Engineering in Plants

By n00nin May 02, 2013 3123 Words
Mark Lindgren
MLA Research Paper
Dr. Cherif Correa
Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering in Plants
In the 1920’s, a man named Henry Wallace founded a company called “The Hi-Bred Corn Company.” He began selecting corn plants that flourished in certain aspects and bred them with other prosperous plants to make a hybrid. After pollenating the female silk of one plant with the pollen of another; the resulting offspring displayed both traits. This idea of ‘selective breeding’ would go on to become the norm in that era of agriculture because it produced bigger and better plants. Because of his pioneering in the agricultural sector, in 1933 President Franklin Delanore Roosevelt appointed him United States Secretary of Agriculture. Some seventy years later, inspired by Henry Wallace, a new field of science was formed: Biotechnology.

Biotechnology uses a process called genetic engineering to alter DNA. The alteration of DNA and insertion of genes can cause certain desired traits to be expressed in plants. The Collins English Dictionary defines genetic engineering as, “(Life Sciences & Allied Applications / Genetics) alteration of the DNA of a cell for purposes of research, as a means of manufacturing animal proteins, correcting genetic defects, or making improvements to plants and animals bred by man.” Biotechnology is implemented in various fields, such as medicine, agriculture, engineering, pharmaceuticals, and genetic testing, among other things. Biotechnology has the potential for great things in many areas of life. Biotechnology is misunderstood in many ways, by many people, but when implemented responsibly and safely, it has the potential to help and further mankind.

Many people dedicate their lives to making biotechnology better and producing great products that have great benefits. However, there are also entities at work who are not as concerned about helping people and changing the world for the better as they are profits. This reckless disregard gives the entire science a bad reputation, and creates an opposing force that is passionate about bringing biotechnology to an end. This opposition has good reason for concern because of the negligence of some of these corporate entities. However there is still great promise for biotechnology in the plant world.

Biotechnology and genetic engineering give selective breeding a run for its money. Selective breeding requires crossing and combining thousands of genes; many are desired, but many are not. The benefits of biotechnology and the criteria that will be used to express biotechnology’s capabilities and importance are substantial. Unlike selective breeding and hybridization, biotechnology and specifically, genetic engineering, make it possible to introduce individual genes with desired traits into a plant’s genome with stunning accuracy. The precision of genetic engineering makes it possible to implement the traits of the desired genes without diluting them with thousands of unwanted traits. Not only can you swap genes between plants of the same species, but because all life forms share the same genetic material, you can transfer genes between all of them. This technology broadens the scope of possibilities immensely. By making it possible to transfer genes from species to species, plants can deal with stressors more effectively and utilize more energy for growth. This allows farmers to increase production of their crops; which in turn makes them more money and provides more food. Nutrition can also be manipulated. Manipulation of nutrition gives the ability to fight malnourishment, disease and starvation. With so many benefits how can one possibly discourage biotechnology?

In the film The Ethics of Biotechnology, Dr. James Baker a professor in the Dept. of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan, speaks on behalf of the academic community and states the goals and common misconceptions that parallel biotechnology. He says that researchers in the field of biotechnology are motivated to help people, when people see the misuse of biotechnology in war and weapons they see biotechnology as being evil. In his opinion, anybody who is involved in legitimate biotechnological research does not believe in those applications. If people see that, they will also see that the people involved have good intentions.

Many people have raised concerns about the current status of the science of biotechnology, and have protested the use of it. These oppositional groups are concerned with things such as safety, nature, and ethics. Companies like Greenpeace are leading the fight against biotech with protest and advertisement. Many people have jumped on the band-wagon, but others have jumped off.

Since the very beginning of plant life on earth, plants have bred and swapped genes. A female’s flower waits patiently for a small particle called a pollen grain to come and land on it. Just like humans, the pollen fertilizes the egg in the flower’s ovary and some of the traits from the male and female plant are given to the offspring. In this inaccurate but effective process, thousands of genes from the parents are given to the offspring. Today, scientists are able to insert genes into plants in laboratories. The major difference is that scientists can insert singular genes into plants, rather than thousands at random. In a testimony before the Subcommittee on Basic Research-House Committee on Science, James H. Maryanski, Ph.D, Biotechnology Coordinator for the Food and Drug Administration, said,

(Today’s techniques) can be used with greater precision and allow for more complete characterization and, therefore, greater predictability about the qualities of the new variety. These techniques give scientists the ability to isolate genes and to introduce new traits into foods without simultaneously introducing many other undesirable traits, as may occur with traditional breeding. This is an important improvement over traditional breeding.

This testimony shows how biotechnology brings precision and accuracy to the table. Hypothetically, if there was an apple tree that produced double the nutrients but also produced a deadly toxin, genetic engineering makes it possible to extract the gene that makes the tree produce more nutrients while excluding the gene that is responsible for producing the toxin, highly unlikely or impossible otherwise. This tree does not exist but it demonstrates biotechnology’s ability to isolate small singular genes; a capability that alone makes biotechnology a valuable resource.

Another invaluable feature is biotechnology’s ability to transfer genes between all life forms. This makes it possible to implement desirable traits into plants from animals, bacteria, fungi, viruses, other plants, and etcetera. Although it may seem taboo, this breaks barriers that otherwise were insurmountable. According to Richard R. MacMahon, Ph.D, an example of a transgenic crop is known as “Bt corn.” He says that Bt corn contains a gene from a species of bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, that enables it to produce a natural insecticide. This is good in the fact that it eliminates the need for applying external pesticides, potentially easing the effect on the environment and reducing the production of chemical pesticides. However, there are some concerns; for example, will the insects become tolerant to this? What if the Bt corn spreads unintentionally? Of course these are serious concerns that deserve a lot of attention. Perhaps this specific product is not worth the risk, but it is only an example of the ability to transfer genes between species. Products like this should be rigorously tested, if they are tested enough and are placed in hypothetical simulations, risk can be minimized. But this is really just the beginning of transgenic plants and there is still much more to learn. The possibilities are nearly limitless. This technology is an asset to all.

Biotechnology gives scientists the tools to make plants endure better in more environments. There are already genetically modified plants on the market with increased resistance to drought, salinity, and excessively hot/cold environments. The large biotech company Monsanto has developed drought resistant maize called DroughtGard™. DroughtGard™ contains a gene that allows the plants to hold water for longer, giving the plant a better chance for survival in very dry climates. According to Monsanto in drought conditions the crops averaged a yield increase of 5 bushels an acre. Biotechnology allows plants to be grown in places where food sources are scarce.

Genetic Engineering also provides tools that can manipulate the nutrients found in plants. In one prime example Prof. Peter Beyer and Prof. Ingo Portrykus inserted rice with a gene that causes it to produce beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. According to the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, vitamin A deficiency is a widespread issue in developing countries. With rice being the major source of food in these countries and beta-carotene containing crops being scarce, vitamin A deficiency results in blindness and death in many children. Golden rice is a publicly funded creation, so it can essentially be given away to these countries, saving hundreds of thousands to millions of lives per year according to the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board. Also, because of the open-source creation, the seeds can be replanted for no cost, as opposed to most of today’s corporately engineered products. Today many countries are doing field testing of this rice to be absolutely certain there aren’t any adverse effects. This is one example of how genetic engineering can be used to feed the world and save lives. According to Prof. Ingo Portrykus, some products in development contain increased levels of iron and other nutrients. This is a very compelling reason for the use of biotechnology in food crops.

However, not everyone agrees that biotechnology is as revolutionary as some say it is. Organizations like Greenpeace are trying to eliminate the science of biotechnology and genetic engineering for good. Many of their reasons are sound concerns, while others are not so thorough and reason based. Some concerns are toxins, allergens, antibiotic resistance, and contamination. In the following statement, Greenpeace’s beliefs are summarized,

GMOs should not be released into the environment since there is not an adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health. We advocate immediate interim measures such as labeling of GE ingredients, and the segregation of genetically engineered crops and seeds from conventional ones. We also oppose all patents on plants, animals and humans, as well as patents on their genes. Life is not an industrial commodity. When we force life forms and our world's food supply to conform to human economic models rather than their natural ones, we do so at our own peril.

This statement has merit and it raises valuable beliefs. However, Greenpeace gives the impression that it seeks to put an end to the science altogether. Greenpeace is against large corporations and unnatural foods, regardless of the benefits. They want to squash genetic engineering like a bug.

Yet, even one of the founders of Greenpeace has jumped off the band-wagon for reasons like this. In an interview on Genomics News Wire, Founding Director of Greenpeace Dr. Patrick Moore talks about why he left Greenpeace. He talks about how Greenpeace has lost sight of the original ideology and have moved to the use of "pagan beliefs and junk science," to manipulate public policy. Moore goes on to talk about how Greenpeace and environmentalism came to be,

…Following the falling of the Berlin wall, and the end of the peace movement, and the end of radical socialist politics in the labor and women's movement, an awful lot of those people drifted into environmentalism. It's been high jacked by political and social activists who are using environmental rhetoric to cloak agendas that have more to do with anti-corporate and class warfare than they do with ecology or saving the environment.

Moore also adds input on the Greenpeace fight against golden rice and biotechnology. He argues,

[Golden rice inventor Ingo] Potrykus has said you guys will be guilty of crimes against humanity if you continue along these lines. And I have to agree with that. What pains me is seeing the organization I helped create go off on such a wrong track. Rather than discrediting golden rice, they should be raising millions of dollars to address the problem it is intended to solve.

It says a lot to hear this coming from the mouth of one of Greenpeace’s founders. But if Greenpeace does one thing right it is to remind us that we need to pay close attention to the ethics and safety involved in this science.

However, there is truth in Greenpeace’s statement; GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms) should not be released into the environment without rigorous testing. This could result in the manifestation of allergens that normally would not be in that kind of food. Also, conforming life forms to fit our economic needs can be walking a dangerous path; we need to be aware of that and think of the real reasons we need biotechnology. We need biotechnology to help people, to save lives and to live healthier lives, not to make as much money as possible. There is certain potential for danger in biotechnology, but like most things in life most of those dangers can be avoided if things are done responsibly and thoroughly. Allergens can be introduced into plants via genetic engineering. According to the Oxford Journal, scientists attempted to insert a gene from brazil nuts into soybeans. The article says that soybeans are low in an essential amino acid called methionine; one that is abundant in brazil nuts. A gene from the brazil nut that is responsible for the production of this amino acid was extracted and inserted into a soybean genome. The allergenic properties of brazil nuts was also carried by this gene. Thankfully, because of rigorous testing, development was ceased and no one was harmed.

Biotechnology is a very promising science. But today big corporations are giving biotechnology a bad name. Products and test results are biased because the corporations do their own quality control testing. The ability to do their own quality control testing makes it tempting to eliminate undesirable results, or alter results. Another concern is profit-fueled motivations. Profit-fueled motivation can result in sloppy lab work and corner cutting. Cutting corners in a delicate science like this can cause allergens, unsafe genes, toxins, and other bad things to go unnoticed. Today most of the cutting edge discoveries are made by corporations, whereas many regulatory expert advisors work for the corporations. To put regulations and safeguards in place, politicians and governmental agencies rely on expert opinion. With most experts working for the corporate entities results and advice can be biased. Biased advising causes biased regulations, and that can result in safety issues. This resembles the current state of biotechnology today. Although most expert advisors work for the corporations, not all do. Academic experts in the field are also involved in the regulation process, this makes the regulation-creating process more balanced, but still not evenly balanced. These limitations give biotechnology a tainted reputation because people cannot trust the companies or regulations. With better regulatory and quality control procedures in place, biotechnology can regain its positive reputation.

The film Biotechnology on the Farm and in the Factory: Agricultural and Industrial Applications, it is said that many farmers, corporate and independent, rely on biotechnology to guarantee quality, quantity, and shelf life of the food they produce. Due to a massive increase in population density, we now rely on genetically engineered crops to survive. Space is becoming more and more limited; there is a need for more food in less space.

Biotechnology is both loved and hated. Each side makes logical points, but does it really have to be so black and white? There are concerns today that may cause problems for biotechnology, but that does not mean that biotechnology is doomed or should be. Biotechnology has the potential to save millions of lives in providing nutrients that normally wouldn’t exist, in the case of golden rice. Another valuable ability is the fact that biotechnology enables scientists to insert genes from various organisms into plant genomes; one example is the insertion of bacterial genes that provide natural internal insecticides that are safe to consumers. These chemical pest control mechanisms enable plants to utilize their energy for better things like growing taller and producing more fruit, as opposed to spending valuable energy fighting pests and infections. Furthermore, scientists have now made it possible to grow plants in climates that before could not, thereby providing alternatives to people without options. Biotechnology has adequate safety assurance because of controls, experiments, and simulations. We have the technology to exceed adequateness, but because of financial motives, corporations do not go above and beyond in an area that should require it.

These financial motives give oppositional groups a platform to stand on. Financial motive causes serious safety concerns because of cost-cutting, corner-cutting and fast-tracking, and give opportunity to mistakes and safety issues. If unbiased academic institutions are given a larger voice in regulatory measures and quality control testing, a large amount of acceptance and support would be restored. Another area of concern is the lack of transparency and secrecy imbedded in the corporate agenda. This manifest mistrust is prevalent in the entire field of biotechnology; not just the corporations. If we can meet these criteria for improvement, we can make biotechnology widely accepted and trusted. The international support for biotechnology in plants would give rise to an agricultural revolution that can make the world a better place.

Works Cited
Biotechnology on the Farm and in the Factory: Agricultural and Industrial Applications. Films Media Group, 2009. Films On Demand. Web. 20 February 2013. < >.

"Genetic Engineering." Collins English Dictionary. HarperCollins Publishers. Web. 5 Mar. 2013. <>.

Genuity DroughtGard Hybrids . Monsanto. Web. 2 Mar. 2013. <>.
Hill, Elliot, Lenard Fleck, James Baker, and Brian Athey, perf. The Ethics of Biotechnology. Narr. Jeanne Ohrnberger. Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 2009. Web. 3 Mar. 2013. <>

MacMahon, Ph.D, Richard R. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Yale, 2013. Web. 2 Mar. 2013. <>.
Maryanski, Ph.D, James H. "Genetically Engineered Foods." US Food and Drug Administration. US Dept.of Health and Human Services, 19 Oct. 1999. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

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