Gene-splicing opens new world for agriculture
To judge from recently announced "breakthroughs," gene-splicing may be the biggest boon for agriculture since people began breeding plants and livestock. But it will probably take many years for the encouraging trends now seen in the laboratory to have a major impact on the farm.Skip to next paragraph
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That seems to be the underlying message in reports of such developments as the so-called "sunbeam," a sunflower tissue culture to which was transferred a proten- coding gene from the French bean.
A significant advance in this research was announced in recent weeks by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Equally important work in this area also is being done elsewhere, especially in West Germany.
Such developments have sparked speculation about improving food crops -- giving grain plants the ability to make their own nitrogen fertilizer as legumes now do or boosting the protein content of corn. However, there are long and difficult steps to be taken before laboratory knowledge can be transformed into practical, commercial applications.
Ultimately, these applications are expected to be enormous. Last May, for example, the research firms Policy Research Corporation and The Chicago Group Inc. issued a study that estimated gene-splicing could eventually create a $50 billion to $100 billion annual global market for agriculture. But it is hard to forecast how fast that market will develop. Thomas T. Bamford, research chief for FMC Corporation, typifies the caution some experts feel when he says, "The hype has confused a lot of people into thinking the problems of working with plants are more tractable than they are."
The sunbean typifies one of the benefits experts now expect the new tools of genetic engineering to give farmers -- inserting foreign genes into plants or animals to give them new capabilities.
THe true genetic revolution in agriculture will come with inserting genes into crop plants, and eventually perhaps into animals also. This raises the prospect of cross breeding across natural reproductive barriers between species and genera and even between the plant and animal kingdoms.
One way to introduce the genes is to use a natural carrier. Last year, biologists at the Max Planck Institute in Cologne, West Germany, used the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciensm as the agent. This bacterium causes galls into plant cells, they were unable propagate whole plants carrying the new gene. This spring, Marc Van Montagu of the Free University of Brussells announced that his laboratory had circumvented the problem. It was able to produce new plants with the desired gene. What is more, he has deleted the bacterial genes causing abnormal growth.
On June 29, Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block announced similar work carried out by a USDA-University of Wisconsin research team under USDA biologist John Kemp. they have used A. tumefaciensm to insert a French bean protein gene into cells of the sunflower. This is the "sunbean." It really isn't bean at all , but a sunflower tissue culture. Unlike Van Montagu's cultures, these so far have not produced viable plants.