Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II
Supporting agricultural development through biotechnology
Biotechnology is impacting areas as diverse as engineering, agriculture, medicine and environmental studies. As a result, the term “biotechnology” is used rather loosely. For some, “biotechnology” refers to any technological application of biological knowledge, from wine and cheese making to gene therapy. On this view, agricultural biotechnology encompasses all biotechnology applications as applied to agriculture. For others, “biotechnology” is usually equated with “genetic engineering,” which is in fact a specific form of biotechnology.
Genetic engineering is the technical process of inserting, or modifying, a gene into an existing plant species, with the help of specific techniques, to enhance the receiving organism. Genetically modified foods and crops are obtained through genetic engineering. Genetic engineering and plant breeding are often compared and contrasted. Opponents often present genetic engineering as a radical departure from plant breeding. Proponents, however, often stress that genetic engineering is an extension of traditional plant breeding.
Plant breeding has been used for centuries for the improvement of crops. Lengthy successive breeding cycles are employed for the introduction of a desired trait (such as fruit size or disease resistance) in a specific variety of plant from another variety of the same species or a very closely related one. Plant breeding experimenters have also tried cross-species hybridization between more distantly related species, with different degrees of success. To mention one example of cross-species breeding, Triticale, a result of the crossing of rye with wheat, was produced as early as 1888. However, breeders had never, until the advent of genetic engineering, been able to utilize genes from unrelated organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, and animals.
Genetic engineering allows for the quick introduction of a specific gene into a plant genome for the expression of a desired agronomic trait. The gene introduced may come not only from another plant species, but also from a wide variety of organisms (animals, fungi, bacteria). Although geneticists point out that genes have an evolutionary history that ultimately has led them to be present in the genome of one type of organism instead of another one, the possibility of inserting, with relative ease, a gene coming from an another type of organism into the genome of a plant is the major distinction between biotechnology and traditional plant breeding, at least for non-experts. What is clear, from a plant breeder’s perspective, is that the accuracy and quickness of biotechnology contrasts favorably with the uncertainty and length associated with traditional plant breeding.