To maintain high productivity and to enhance nutritional values, scientists are using techniques of Genetic Engineering in Agriculture or recombinant DNA technologies.
An adverse environmental phenomenon like drought, famine, increasing heat have adverse effects on the growth and yield of crops.
Recombinant DNA changes the natural genetic makeup and the characteristics of an organism by inserting DNA from another organism.
Recombinant DNA technology is widely used in agriculture to create genetically modified organisms that produce genetically modified crops and better agricultural development.
With the help of recombinant DNA technology, today’s crops are more resistant to herbicides, insects, and viruses, and have led to food security, food safety, and an increase in food production.
Let us first discuss Genetic Engineering
What is Genetic Engineering?
Genetic engineering often termed genetic modification or genetic manipulation is the manipulation of an organism’s gene using biotechnology.
The benefit of this technique is to transfer genes within and across organisms to produce improved or novel organisms.
The production of an organism through genetic engineering is considered to be genetically modified (GM), however, the resulting organism is termed a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO).
Lets us dig into Genetic Engineering in Agriculture, its advantages and disadvantages.
Genetic Engineering in Agriculture
One of the best applications of genetic engineering or recombinant DNA technology is the creation of genetically engineered crops.
This results in an increase in the production of crops, an increase in tolerance to abiotic stresses, altering the composition of food, agricultural development, and the production of novel products.
The first application of this technique was the production of crops that provided protection from insect pests or tolerance to herbicides.
With the passage of time, scientists were able to develop fungal and virus-resistant crops as well.
Furthermore, this makes the management of insects and weeds easier and indirectly increases the yield of the crops.
As a result of GM, there is a direct impact on the production of crops, agricultural products, and the nutritional values of the crop.
For plant species, it can take up to 12 years to develop, evaluate and release a new variety of crops that is in accordance with international requirements. These are:
- Genetically distinct from other varieties
- Genetically uniform throughout the population
- It must be genetically stable
While advances in modification methods are important.
However, it provides opportunities for greater assurance that harmful features will be identified and eliminated before commercial release.
It is important to identify the harmful and toxic products before they are commercially available and with few exceptions, standard plant breeding practices have been very successful.
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There are a number of techniques that breeders use other than genetic medication to increase the yield of the crops. Some of these breeding methods are.
- Simple Selection
- Selective Breeding
- Somatic Hybridization
This is one of the oldest breeding methods and has still implications today.
In this process, the breeder selects the genetically superior population of plants with the most desirable traits for continuous plant breeding.
They then sow the seeds of the better or genetically superior plants.
Over the period of several years, breeders save and replant the seeds which thereby increase the population of superior plants.
The modern application of this technique is Marker Assisted Selection which makes molecular selection analysis detect plants
These are likely to express the desirable features like disease resistance, or more specific pathogens in the population.
This allows a faster, more efficient mechanism for identifying individuals that have superior traits.
For instance, the reduction of unpalatable chemicals in plants makes them appealable to humans but they may attract more feeding by insects and other pests.
Thereby making them less likely to survive.
Selective breeding involves choosing plants with particular characteristics to breed together and produce crops with more desirable characteristics.
As a result of this type of breeding method, there are better yields of the crops.
Recent advances in tissue culture technologies provide new opportunities for recombining genes from different plant sources.
In Somatic Hybridization, cells growing in a culture medium are stripped of their protective walls usually using pectinase and hemicellulase enzymes.
These striped cells are pooled from different sources and through the use of various techniques such as electrical shock are fused with one another.
When these two fuses, the resulting hybrid contains genetic material from both of the plants.
This breeding method overcomes physical barriers to pollen-base hybridization but not basic chromosomal incompatibilities.
Let’s discuss techniques of Genetic Engineering in Agriculture.
Genetically Engineered Crops
With improvements in science and technology, scientists were able to move from simple techniques like cross-breeding to more sophisticated techniques.
These involve the manipulation of the DND of the crops to make them better.
This also leads to better yield, better defense from the pests and weeds thereby, more profits to the farmers.
These techniques are:
- Microbial Vectors
- Gene Editing or Genome Editing
- Gene Therapy
Agrobacterium tumefacient is a naturally occurring soil microbe that causes crown gall disease on susceptible plant species.
It is an unusual pathogen that transfers its portion of DNA into the post-plant cell thereby changing the genetic makeup.
This DNA integrates itself into the plant DNA and reads it as if it were its own. This transferred gene directs the production of several substances that mediate the development of crown gall.
Among these is one or more non-protein amino acids called opines that deliver and stably integrate specific new genetic material into the cells of target plant species.
In this technique, the plant protoplast takes up macromolecules from their surrounding fluid, facilitating electrical impulse.
Stripping cells of their protective walls in the culture medium results in protoplast and hence changes the genetic makeup of the plant’s DNA.
By applying an electrical pulse, the cell membrane destabilizes allowing the DNA to enter the cell. This cell then regenerates its cell walls and grows whole, fertile transgenic plants.
Gene Editing or Genome Editing
Gene editing (genome editing) is based on the technology CRISPR-Cas9 which allows researchers to customize a living organism’s genetic sequence by making specific and certain changes to its DNA.
Genome editing tools can make it easier and quicker to make changes that were previously done through traditional breeding.
With the help of scientific research and this technique, many scientists have been able to develop improved crop varieties with higher yields, strengthen stress tolerance, disease, and pest resistance, decrease input cost, and increase nutritional values.
With the help of Gene therapy, scientists are able to develop crops that can fight genetic disorders that might be present in a specific species of the crops.
This results in better food and crop production and as a result development of genetically modified food that has high nutritional values.
Examples of Genetic Engineering in Agriculture and Crop
With the help of various genetic engineering techniques, scientists have developed a number of plants that are pesticide resistant and grow exponentially.
Some of the examples of such plants are as follows:
Pesticide-Resistant Rapeseed Plants: This is a flowering plant that is used to make certain types of vegetable oil.
The GM technique allows them to be resistant to certain types of pesticides so that farmers treat the fields to remove pests, unharming the plants
Plants that Fight Pollution: Poplar trees can absorb pollutant water through their roots and clean it before releasing the water into the air.
These plants are more efficient at cleaning certain pollutants than regular poplars.
Golden Rice: This technique makes food nutritious and healthy such as golden rice which contains beta-carotene- the same vitamin that makes carrot orange.
This vitamin is important for people who do not have access to it otherwise.
Faster-Growing Trees: With the increasing demand for wood, we need trees that grow faster than average.
Thereby, with this technique, scientists have developed tress that is able to ward off biological attacks, grows faster and stronger.
Moreover creating better wood those tresses that are not better by genetic modification
Bigger, Longer-lasting Tomatoes: Such tomatoes are bigger and more robust. Such tomatoes are fresh for longer, can be shipped farther and harvested at the same time rather than harvesting only parts of a field at each harvest.
Insecticide Corn: This corn produces a poison that kills insects. While this corn may also harm beneficial insects such as butterflies.
However, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
Non-Crying Onions: Onions and crying seem to go hand in hand but not anymore.
Through genetic modification, such onions are there that do not have enzymes that tear you up i.e. sunoin. These onions will not make you cry.
There are certain advantages to genetic engineering in agriculture. These are as follows:
It increases the speed at which the plant grows. Selective cross breading that works with similar traits in other species is how we have better results.
With modern scientific practices, we can reduce the need of applying herbicides, pesticides, pest management, and protect them from other harmful effects on the environment.
With the help of agricultural biotechnology, Herbicide Tolerant crops are developed to tolerate specif broad-spectrum herbicides which kill the surrounding weeds.
However, it leaves the crops intact.
A recent USDA report by the department of agriculture found that herbicide use on GE corn increased from around 1.5 pounds per planted acre in 2001 to more than 2.0 pounds per planted acre in 2010.
This makes the work safer, creates healthier soils, and thereby reduces the risks of groundwater contamination and water scarcity.
We can easily use this technique to create larger yields from existing crops.
By manipulating the DNA of plants to create more fruits per tree we can increase the yield and food production.
With the help of Bt and molecular biotechnology, Scientist has been able to develop plants that are insect and pest resistant.
Bt is a protein in plants that kills certain insects with alkaline digestive tracts.
When these insects inject this protein, the digestive system is disrupted, producing slow growth and eventually leading to death.
Therefore, with greater yields, there is a potential for new agricultural products and agricultural development such as ethanol from sugarcane or corn.
It allows us to create food products that have a better nutritional profile. This means that we can get the nutrition we need from a less number of products.
Moreover, with the help of these techniques, researchers are developing plants that can fight genetic diseases.
In these, special treatments for inducing gene changes include the application of mutation-inducing chemicals and irradiation with UV light and X-rays.
These treatments commonly include removing the genetic diseases but occasionally include adding beneficial ones as well.
Human insulin-induced plants are GM crops and plants that restore the body’s ability to produce Human Insulin and help millions of people who are dependent on insulin diabetes.
In return, shipment becomes easy to areas where food is scarce, and more people can benefit from nutritious food.
We can also extend the lifespan of the food allowing them for further shipment as they can survive longer and harsher conditions.
This also increases the rate of maturity for products within our food chain.
However, this applies to both plants and animals. Scientists use DNA manipulation to create attractive colors of food like tomatoes and blueberries.
Certain disadvantages to genetic engineering in agriculture are as follows:
People can abuse this technology to affect certain groups of people. For instance, if someone is allergic to shellfish, you can add its DNA to any food item like corn.
The person who is allergic to it would potentially trigger a reaction due to it.
Many companies and governments of developed countries make patents for genetically modified DNA thereby making it profitable instead of using it for the good of humanity.
It also means that fewer people are studying it to seek out health benefits simply because there is not much profit to the practice.
You can also create patents for seeds and crops other than DNA sequences. Therefore causes issues for farmers who live in fields that use such crops.
Due to such liabilities, few farmers work with genetically modified crops as it costs them more than they might make in developed countries.
Although it seems that GM increases diversity, however, it actually decreases it. For instance, there are a lot of varieties of bananas but only Cavendish bananas make it to the international market.
The outcomes are not predictable always. Such as human and animal cloning. Although there are different outcomes of genetically modified animals the results can be dangerous and destructive.
Moreover, it does create a natural barrier against diseases and harsh environmental factors; it can also prolong the resilience of pants.
Pathogens become strong to affect the stronger plants which can make them less resistant to herbicides and pesticides.
Although with recombinant DNA technology, or Genetic Engineering in Agriculture, there has been an immense increase in the yield of crops and nutritional values they can also negatively affect the crops and ultimately the consumer.
It does not necessarily mean that there will be higher nutritional values for the crops. For instance, poultry grows at a higher pace today but the 20% increase in its fat affects its overall nutritional value.
By taking a responsible approach to limit the potential for negative outcomes, we can have a better yield of crops in the future.