Expert response from GMOAnswers Admin_1
Tuesday, 01/12/2016 19:14
The technology for making Genetically Modified plants was a result of curiosity-driven research on the plant disease called Crown Gall. It was caused by a bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which caused large tumorous overgrowths at infected wound sites. A group of us at the University of Washington collaboratively showed that a few genes from Agrobacterium were in the gall cells replicating, attached to host plant DNA. Gall cells would not regenerate into plants, and we had to find the tumor-inducing genes and get rid of them. In the process, we figured out how to change the genes that were delivered to the plant cells. It was an intriguing story, with a number of competing laboratories in Europe, Australia and the United States working out the details that showed us that Agrobacterium was in fact a natural genetic engineer.
The first genetically modified plants were tobacco plants because its cells regenerated into complete plants that were fertile and produced plenty of seeds. The gene we added was a yeast gene that (in yeast, at least) produces alcohol dehydrogenase, an enzyme that helps you break down any alcohol you consume. Since tobacco does not normally imbibe, the gene would not constitute a crop improvement. Further, a yeast gene does not express in a plant cell unless we tinker with it. We knew how to do that, by methods developed at that same time in 1982. But that was not the point of the experiment. Our plant with a yeast gene demonstrated that we could make a transgenic plant. That was the aim of the first genetically engineered plant – to see if we could do it.
This genetic curiosity was a university product, made collaboratively by Prof. Andrew Binns at the University of Pennsylvania and my team at Washington University in St. Louis, along with post-doctoral students Tony Matzke and Ken Barton working with me. We could see that we had a way to improve crops, but we did not know the practical aspects—what plants needed and what genes could solve their real-world problems. For that, two of us (Barton and I) eventually moved from academia to competing corporations.
Subsequent decades and the investment of many millions of dollars in research have brought to the market and product pipelines a number of crop improvements. Initially, for reasons of technical feasibility, the focus had been on traits conferred by single genes, with emphases on traits that will address the needs of farmers in the field. More recently products have begun to address the needs and wants of end users of particular crops, like food processers and livestock ranchers.
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