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Agricultural Biotechnology: History, Science, and Society (October 2013): Plant Biotechnology

By Brian R. Shmaefsky

Plant Biotechnology

The use of biotechnology to improve agricultural plant production has so far been a successful endeavor.  Plant Biotechnology and Agriculture: Prospects for the 21st Century, edited by Arie Altman and Paul Hasegawa, and the two-volume Transgenic Crop Plants, edited by C. Kole et al., provide detailed accounts of the technologies that led to the use of 165 million acres of land in the United States for growing biotechnology crops.  The latter book shows how the ancient simple methods for ensuring abundant local foods grew into one of the most highly technological human endeavors applied to agriculture.  Biotechnology is applied not only to growing the plants, but also to preserving and processing the crops.

Two comprehensive books that also discuss the broader science behind biotechnology crop production are Plants, Biotechnology and Agriculture by Denis Murphy and Genetically Modified Crops by Nigel Halford.  Both are simple to read and clearly explain complex scientific concepts.

Older methods of crop breeding have been almost abandoned and have been replaced by genetic modification techniques to make new varieties and novel types of crops.  Plants, Genes, and Crop Biotechnology by Maarten Chrispeels and David Sadava documents the evolution of crop agriculture and diversity of traits that were added to the modified crop plants.  The authors also discuss different uses of crops, as in biofuel and pharmaceutical production.

Robert Brown and Tristan Brown discuss the role of agricultural plants in biofuel production in Why Are We Producing Biofuels?: Shifting to the Ultimate Source of Energy.  The authors look at the economics of biofuel production and the different types of biofuels used in developed nations.  Plant Biotechnology for Sustainable Production of Energy and Co-products, edited by Peter Mascia, Jürgen Scheffran, and Jack Widholm, explains the broader uses of plant biotechnology in energy production.  For a global perspective on the biofuel industry, readers should consult Biofuels, Land Grabbing and Food Security in Africa, edited by Prosper Matondi, Kjell Havnevik, and Atakilte Beyene.  Africa is used as a model for understanding the various serious impacts of major biofuel production.

The use of agricultural animals and plants for producing pharmaceuticals forms a growing field of agricultural biotechnology called “biopharming.”  An interesting book on the history and current success of this new technology is Hwa Lim’s Genetically Yours: Bioinforming, Biopharming, and Biofarming.  In Food, Medicine, and the Quest for Good Health: Nutrition, Medicine, and Culture, Nancy Chen discusses how biopharming is a growing strategy for producing functional foods, those foods purported to have health-promoting properties.

Plant biotechnology would not be possible without the reproductive technologies of plant tissue culture and cloning.  Two useful books that explain the different methods used to grow plants in culture are Plant Tissue Culture, Development, and Biotechnology, edited by Robert Trigiano and Dennis Gray, and Plant Embryo Culture: Methods and Protocols, edited by Trevor Thorpe and Edward Yeung.  Some techniques involve removing the embryo from seeds, while many other strategies involve growing whole plants from flower, leaf, stem, and root tissues.  Fields of plants with uniform characteristics can be grown from one specimen by cloning the plant cells in the laboratory.  Another application of plant biotechnology, besides producing food crops, biofuels, and pharmaceuticals, is the production of cut flowers and ornamental plants, as Yi Li and Yon Pei discuss in Plant Biotechnology in Ornamental Horticulture.

Plant cloning typically does not introduce too much variety into cultured plant parts unless some random mutations lead to desirable characteristics.  Finding and cloning desirable traits is not possible without several genetic modification techniques used to alter plant DNA.  Adrian Slater, Nigel Scott, and Mark Fowler investigate the different constituents of creating genetically modified plants in Plant Biotechnology: The Genetic Manipulation of Plants.  They discuss genomics, the coding present in DNA, as a fundamental component for genetically modifying plants.  Genomics helps researchers find desirable genes that can be modified for improvements or placed in other plants.  Tissue culture then permits the rapid multiplication of plants with desirable characteristics.

Genetically modifying plant cells is not the easiest task, particularly since their cells are covered with cell walls.  In contrast, animals do not have cell walls, so new genes can be introduced with genetic modification tools and viruses that cannot be used on plants.  Scientists discovered that a pathogenic bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens could transfer parts of its DNA into plant cells.  Researchers learned to modify this bacterium to transfer other genes placed on artificial chromosomes.  In Agrobacterium Transformation: A Boost to Agricultural Biotechnology, Mohammed Abdullahi and Moses Abalaka compare the value of genetic modification to traditional techniques for breeding crops.  The focus of the book is the successful use of Agrobacterium tumefaciens for introducing desirable traits into crops.  In effect, this bacterium revolutionized crop biotechnology and created a versatile tool equivalent to the use of viruses in introducing DNA into animal cells.

Works Cited