About a 2 minute read.
Many years ago the botanist George Washington Carver sat in front of a congressional hearing to defend the United States’ peanut crop. Washington ornately presented multiple uses for the once lowly peanut and thus brought the field of biotechnology to the limelight. Biotechnology is simply the use of biological sciences and principles to solve problems. The field includes integrated research among the subjects of genetics, crop science, and information technology. Plant breeders were fascinated by the potential of this new scientific toolkit. Plant biotechnology allows breeders to understand life at a deeper level and to use this biological information to create new plants.
Genetics is the field of study dedicated to understanding how biological information is passed on through generations. Scientists are able to map biological information at a molecular level, and computers assist in organizing data into a collection of genes called a genome. A plant breeding program can take many years and many people, like Mr. Carver, have spent entire lifetimes growing certain species. It took millennia for the ancient Americans to breed today’s corn from a tiny grass seed called teosinte. By contrast, corn strains have gone from meager shoots on the stalk to large, plump cobs over the last eighty years. Rice that was bred over thousands of years ago in Asia is now abundantly grown in the centuries-old United States of America. Understanding a genetic map allows breeders to target specific traits when breeding. This reduces the time and number of generations required to develop new plants.
Plant biotechnology research by public and private scientific communities promotes expedited breeding regimens. The biotechnology research conducted concerning plant science has also helped breeders develop crops for specific beneficial purposes. Plants are bred with potential benefits to humans, animals or the environment. Medicine and fiber crops are grown for large populations. Plants are utilized to clean up hazardous and toxic materials. Nutritional qualities like the addition of vitamins and nutrients or the removal of fats, toxins, and allergens can be modified at the molecular level. A rice variety known as ‘Golden Rice’ has been fortified with beta-carotene and is publically grown in regions that suffer from Vitamin-A deficiency. Soybeans have also been modified to produce different levels of oleic oil to provide a healthier fatty-acid profile.
The application of biotechnology makes plant breeding more sophisticated. Genetics teaches breeders about the variation of inherited traits. Genetic information acts as a map to assist in the development of appropriate breeding programs. The mastery of this map may also lead to new alternative products produced from plants. The plant research and the role of biotechnologies are paramount to human existence and was aptly summed up by former Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro. “The application of contemporary biological knowledge to issues like food and nutrition and human health has to occur. It has to occur for the same reason that things have occurred for the past ten millennia. People want to live better, and they will use the tools they have to do it. Biology is the best tool we have.”