Once the genes carrying the beneficial traits have been identified, the next step is to insert them into the plant.
Modern genetic researchers use a revolutionary technique developed by Marc Van Montagu of the University of Ghent. Montagu’s method utilizes agrobacterium, natural bacteria that can pass on genes to plants. The agrobacterium acts like an automobile, with the genes as its passengers. The genes are attached to the agrobacterium and carried into the seed, where they integrate with the rest of the plant’s genetic material.
This technique, known as horizontal gene transfer, is a natural evolution from the plant breeding pioneered by Mendel and other researchers. Mendel’s breeding techniques were often imprecise, with thousands of genes transferred in each experiment. Modern plant biotechnology, however, can achieve precise transfers of as small as a single gene.
After planting in the lab, biotech seedlings are moved to greenhouses, where further tests will be performed in a controlled environment.
To ensure a biotech seed offers maximum farm benefits and that there are no unintended effects, hundreds of thousands of plants will be grown and studied over several years. Only after rigorous tests for the safety and reliability of the biotech trait are complete, will the top performing plants be selected to produce the crop that will be made available to farmers around the world.
Ten thousand years ago, the earliest farmers, living in the Fertile Crescent of countries surrounding the Nile River, the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, worked to find the seeds that grew the hardiest crop. They discovered some seed types from the wild grains produced more plentiful harvests. They began selecting these types (today we call them varieties) and began cultivating them every season which ultimately led to the establishment of thriving stable communities, ending the nomadic lifestyle which was previously driven by a search for food.
Over the past 150 years, researchers have built on the earliest farmers’ knowledge to better understand the importance of plant genetics to develop stronger and more vibrant crops.
By identifying crops with desired traits such as better nutritional characteristics or greater tolerance to drought and using selective breeding, they have developed improved plants that are healthier, more resilient, and capable of producing greater yields.