The below article is written as an introduction to how genetically engineered plants are made for anyone without a science background and is made to be freely shared.
One doesn’t need to take more than a quick scroll through Facebook or Twitter to see that genetically engineered (GE) plants are a hot topic of debate right now. The waters are clouded with questions about nutrition, safety, herbicides, company morality, and more. It can be hard to figure out who to listen to. There are strong voices, both from those who support GE crop usage and those who condemn it.
Some of the concerns about GE crops deal with the question of safety. Are the changes to the plant something that could harm me if I eat the plant? Are new allergens possibly added? How do I know I can trust the person who tells me they are safe? New technologies can be confusing and concerning. We want to make sure that what we use- especially the food we eat- is safe for us and our friends and families.
I recently talked with Wesley Bruce, a scientist that works at a company that develops GE crops. He said, “When we think about crop improvements, what we’re looking for are ways to optimize or add key traits to the crops. And this is mostly to overcome limitations they might have during their production.” He continued to explain how GE plants are made—how the company gets from a plan to a plant.
Before any work begins in a lab, the company takes time to research their end goal. First they need to know what they want the plant to be able to do (survive extreme heat, insects trying to eat it, drought, etc.) and they need to know what controls those outcomes. Extensive research is done. Researchers will trawl through data that has been published and reviewed to find previous work that will help. Small-scale tests will often be done at the company or a university research lab to understand the basics.
Plants could be changed by addition of new blueprints (DNA) to the plant, by traditional cross breeding with a plant that has the desired trait or by using new technology to either make small edits to the DNA or put new DNA into the plant. In all these approaches, the original DNA blueprints are changed in order to help improve the plant. After the changes are made, the company spends time testing the resulting plants.
"We are usually looking to do quality control checks- we’re basically checking to make sure that we only modify the DNA we wanted to modify. We do product efficacy testing…trying to ensure the traits we modified are going to work under the conditions we want them to work. And especially in the case of transgenics [GE crops] we’ll conduct safety studies per regulatory guidelines,” explains Dr. Bruce. These guidelines are set by the FDA, EPA, USDA, and multiple international agencies. Finishing these studies takes years.
Finally, the product is launched. Throughout the usage of the crop in the field, the company that Dr. Bruce works for takes time to talk with the farmers that are using the product. They have face to face conversations, let users do side-by-side comparisons, and listen to complaints, needs, and ideas.
Developing GE crops isn’t a random process that produces unknown modified plants that we can’t understand. It’s thoughtful and thorough. Below is a shareable infographic that outlines the steps to make a GE plant that Dr. Bruce described.
Download a copy here:
Alyssa Preiser is a graduate student at Michigan State University in the Sharkey lab studying alternative carbon flow pathways around the Calvin-Benson cycle. Connect with her on LinkedIn or through on Twitter at @alyssapreiser.