BOSTON — Just as the semiconductor industry has Moore's Law, in which computer chips double in power every 18 months, the Monsanto Company has discovered what it calls Monsanto's Law for biotechnology. It goes like this:
"The amount of genetic information used in practical applications will double every year or two."
Already, the company's researchers have made impressive strides transplanting single genes into various crops. Now, they're beginning to insert multiple genes, creating more nutritious foods and better fibers.
Progress is rapid partly because plant geneticists are able to use techniques already developed for human genetics research.
Another reason: The technology is cheaper. In 1974, it cost Monsanto $2.5 million to determine the chemical structure of a single gene. Today, it costs $150.
Although the work remains difficult - it can take 10,000 gene transfers to create a single plant ready for field trial - scientists are finding new ways to use the technology.
For example, one of the vexing problems for hog farmers is phosphorous. The nutrient comes in corn but not in a form that hogs can absorb very well. It also creates an environmental problem, since the undigested phosphorus passes through the hogs and enters the waste stream, polluting the water.
By reengineering corn to make its phosphorous available to hogs, Pioneer in Iowa, is on the verge of giving farmers a double benefit. They won't have to spend as much money to supplement their existing feed with phosphorous. And they'll also reduce water pollution. The new corn should be available in 2000.
And that's just some of the sizzle in the frying pan. If geneticists can engineer corn to better feed hogs, then why not reengineer the hogs to take better advantage of the corn? Pioneer has already done some work on the idea.
The company is also looking at creating crops for specific areas of the world where people are lacking one nutrient or another.