The topic of "suicide seeds" or "terminator technology" is a deeply engrained in the fabric of the anti-GMO movement. Such ominous language is the basis of many websites that conjure fear spanning from farmer manipulation to the death of every plant on the planet. Talk about a frankenfood!
However, the reality is not nearly so scary. In 1998 Delta and Pine Land, one of America's largest cotton seed company, received wide patent protection for a series of traits, one that was called "technology protection system". Through a rather clever process a self-fertilizing plant cannot produce germinating seeds. The molecular basis is a gene that encodes a protein called a Ribosome Interferring Protein. You might recall that ribosomes are the cellular sites for protein synthesis, so if this interferring protein is expressed, the plant can't make other proteins (which comprise enzymes and structural feature) so the plant would die before germination.
The gene was placed next to a promoter from an LEA gene. Think of promoters as on-off switches. LEA stands for "Late Embryogenesis Abundant". So this promoter switches on the protein that interrupts protein synthesis during late embroygenesis. An embryo that can't synthesize protein is pretty much DOA.
All of this was regulated through a clever but complex process that activated this mechanism upon self-pollination. If you'd like to know more send me an email. I could go into detail here, but a picture is worth 1000 words. Probably more.
Why do they call it "terminator technology"? This term actually was devised from a Canadian NGO called the Rural Advancement Foundation International. They were not so excited about the technology.
But to your point, how does this technology help farmers? It doesn't. It doesn't hurt them either. Why? Because it was never used in a crop beyond the greenhouse. The technology was never commercially deployed. Why not? Probably because it became a PR nightmare coupled to the fact that Delta Pine's products had a long, expensive road to deregulation ahead.
Is this technology really bad? Many biotech critics feel that this technology would be unacceptable because it prohibits a farmer from saving seeds for the next year's planting, and that's true.
However, seed companies have relied on their own genetic means to stop propagation of their elite genetics for many years. They're called hybrids.
Seed companies develop genetically pure lines called "inbreds". Inbreds themselves typically aren't too exciting. In the case of corn one hybrid might have tiny ears but good disease resistance. Another might have a better quality ear but poor yield. However, when the two are crossed the next generation has half the genes from each parent, and in some cases the "combining ability" results in an exceptional plant-- a hybrid. These perform great and seed companies and farmers make a few bucks.
However, if a farmer were to save seeds from the hybrid the genetics would scramble again. The next generation would produce plants where there was no genetic uniformity. Most plants would have deleterious traits, maybe poor resistance to disease, bad yield or unmarketable corn quality. So in all fairness, hybrids are also functionally "terminators" in that they require the farmer to repurchase seeds every year.
Is that a bad thing? Not really. Farmers have historically been glad to buy seeds from seed companies. Seed companies specialize in making seeds, not making food. Farmers specialize in growing food, not seeds. Seed companies can grow plants/seeds to maturity, harvest at the right time, process and store the seed, then perform quality control to guarantee the best product for the farmer.
In conclusion, the scary thought of terminator technology is based on a grain of truth, but is wildly overblown. The technology exists but never was deployed. Moreover, farmers have been buying "dead end" hybrid seed for decades. While they can't propagate it, they are guaranteed high-quality seed that maintained superior traits to maximize their profits.
The next time someone tries to convince you that ag companies use terminator technology to harm farmers in a quest for world domination, remind them that the technology never was used. It's just another popular anti-biotech myth, and your knowledge of the real story is its terminator.
I'll be back.