27 Apr 2004 3:17 pm

Just when I was feeling down about science, Wired comes to the rescue with a great article about Super Organics and smart breeding. I highly recommend you follow the link and read the article, but I’ll summarize it here, with some interpretation and analysis.

Let’s start with the transgenics — generally plants or animals whose genetic code has had bits of others species genetic code grafted on. Transgenic foods have a certain Iron Science Future Gothic sensibility to them — aside from nanotechnology, transgenics are one of the last places where you can make bold and occasionally unwise comments like “And this fruit, spliced with the genes of the mighty salmon and hardy dandelion, can survive killer frost and thrives in the worst of environments!” But people like the Pure Food Campaigners have this fear that these transgenics will contaminate the food chain and lead to unparallelled ecological disaster.

However, some clever lads and lasses have, with the help of massive genome maps, figured out a really freaking cool end-run around the political and social acceptance of transgenic plant products. The basic concept is that, in a given plant family — say, carrots — there is a wide variability in related carrot species that may have genes of interest that would be useful in the main-line (ie, produce-ready) carrot species.

In the evolutionary past of carrots, many genes have been created, used, and eventually suppressed in the rough-and-tumble darwinian struggle of carrot progression. Certain species may express some genes that aren’t expressed at all in other species, or certain genes may exist in all carrot species that have simply been silenced (the mechanisms for this kind of go beyond the scope of this post — I’d recommend a good introductory class in genetics, really).

Now, smart breeding comes into play when scientists and farmers pose a question: “Wouldn’t it be dandy if my carrots had more Vitamin E?”. This questioning would result in a search of the carrot family’s genomic map for genes which cause the expression of Vitamin E in carrots. Once this gene is found, and isolated to a species of carrot, they can then make several decisions — whether they should cultivate this species (sometimes not a good idea — it may be unsuitable for use as a produce plant due to a number of factors, like being hard to cultivate, bad taste, purple appearance instead of the expected orange, etc), or whether to hybridize the Vitamin E-making trait into a more produce-ready species of carrot. Instead of taking the transgenic approach and splicing in this subspecies’ genes into the produce-ready carrot species, scientists end up using traditional techniques like cross-breeding and hybridization.

No haphazard trial-and-error attempts here — thanks to the maps, they know the gene (and therefore the end-product) that they’re looking for, and can concentrate specifically on expressing those traits. Granted, they also use some of the more arcane plant-science methods that scare the bejeesus out of me — things like embryo-rescue and tissue culture cloning, which works so much better on plants than animals — but only because I was trained as a molecular biologist and find plants incomprehensible.

I’ve kind of glossed over certain details — not everything has detailed genomic maps, for example, but then again, there are bioinformatic techniques that are available to alllow for searches of related genomes for similar gene products (wheat, corn, and rice, for example, are different species, but genes in all three for, say, leaf shape or stalk growth or starch-depositing tend to be similar).

Smart breeding has interesting ramifications. First, it gets around the “Frankenfoods” label, because the techniques they’re using for the actual hybridization are well-characterized and have been used for most of our agricultural past. Second, because this kind of research is generally being done by universities, in cooperation with local farmers, and because this kind of process is generally unpatentable, it unlocks farmers from Monsanto’s deadly and pricey grip; in effect, open-sourcing plants.

I’m a little skeptical about claims that smart breeding could lead to another Green Revolution, but anything that helps lessen the impact of starvation and scarcity is double-plus good. And, if that means that I could someday grab a banana that gives me my full recommended dosage of daily vitamins and minerals, promotes enamel growth in my teeth and staves off any number of diseases, then I’m all for it. Bananas rock.

Comments are closed.