from Wired Website
It wasn't just any old tomato. It was the Flavr Savr, a genetically engineered fruit designed to solve a problem of modernity. Back when we all lived in villages, getting fresh, flavorful tomatoes was simple.
Local farmers would deliver them, bright red and bursting with flavor, to nearby markets.
Then cities and suburbs pushed out the farmers, and we began demanding our favorite produce year-round. Many of our tomatoes today are grown in another hemisphere, picked green, and only turn red en route to the local Safeway. Harvesting tomatoes this way, before they've received their full dose of nutrients from the vine, can make for some pretty bland fare.
But how else could they endure the long
trip without spoiling?
When the tomato finally emerged, it demonstrated that there was no accounting for taste at Calgene.
Flavr Savr wasn't just oddly spelled; it
was a misnomer. Even worse, the fruit was a bust in the fields. It
was highly susceptible to disease and provided low yields. Calgene
spent more than $200 million to make a better tomato, only to find
itself awash in red ink. Eventually, it was swallowed by Monsanto.
The vine-ripened hybrid, now grown and sold worldwide under several brand names, owes its existence to Kedar's knowledge of the tomato genome. He didn't use genetic engineering.
His fruit emerged from a process that's
both more sophisticated and far less controversial.
Gene jocks said they could give us even
greater abundance and curb environmental damage by inserting a snip
or two of DNA from another species into the genomes of various
process known as transgenics.
Take cotton. Bugs love it, which is why Southern folk music is full of tunes about the boll weevil. This means huge doses of pesticides. The world's largest cotton producer, China, used to track the human body count during spraying season. Then in 1996, Monsanto introduced BT cotton - a GMO that employs a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis to make a powerful pesticide in the plant.
BT cotton cuts pesticide spraying in
half; the farmers survive.
The company owns scores of patents
covering its GM seeds and the entire development process that
creates them. This gives Monsanto a virtual monopoly on GM seeds for
mainline crops and stifles outside innovation. No one can
gene-jockey without a tithe to the life sciences giant.
Researchers are beginning to understand plants so precisely that they no longer need transgenics to achieve traits like drought resistance, durability, or increased nutritional value. Over the past decade, scientists have discovered that our crops are chock-full of dormant characteristics.
inserting, say, a bacteria gene to ward off pests, it's often
possible to simply turn on a plant's innate ability.
Think about the crossbreeding and hybridization that farmers have been doing for hundreds of years, relying on instinct, trial and error, and luck to bring us things like tangelos, giant pumpkins, and burpless cucumbers.
Now replace those fuzzy factors with
precise information about the role each gene plays in a plant's
makeup. Today, scientists can tease out desired traits on the fly -
something that used to take a decade or more to accomplish.
Call them Superorganics - nutritious,
delicious, safe, abundant crops that require less pesticide,
fertilizer, and irrigation - a new generation of food that will
please the consumer, the producer, the activist, and the FDA.
Until recently, gene banks were like libraries with
millions of dusty books but no card catalogs. Advances in genomics
and information technology - from processing power to databases and
storage - have given crop scientists the ability to not only create
card catalogs detailing the myriad traits expressed in individual
varieties, but the techniques to turn them on universally.
It's a tag that sticks to a particular region of a chromosome, allowing researchers to zero-in on the genes responsible for a given trait - a muted orange hue or the ability to withstand sea spray. With markers, much of the early-stage breeding can be done in a lab, saving the time and money required to grow several generations in a field.
Once breeders have marked a trait, they use traditional breeding tactics like tissue culturing - growing a snip of plant in a nutrient-rich medium until it's strong enough to survive on its own. One form of culturing, embryo rescue, allows breeders to cross distant relatives that wouldn't normally produce a viable offspring.
This is important because rare, wild varieties often demonstrate highly desirable characteristics.
After fertilization, a breeder extracts
the premature embryo and fosters it in the lab. Another technique -
anther culture - enables breeders to develop a complete plant from a
single male cell.
In the mid-'80s, a grad student in plant breeding at Cornell University was handed a task that none of her peers would take.
Her name: Susan McCouch. Her loser assignment: Create a map of the 40,000 genes spread across the rice genome.
In 1988, the completion of that work
would be heralded as a scientific breakthrough. Sixteen years later,
it's beginning to shake corporate control of science.
McCouch's map was just as revealing. Researchers compared it to the genomes of wheat and corn and realized that all three crops, along with other cereal grasses - more than two-thirds of humanity's food - have remarkably similar makeups.
The volumes of research into corn and
wheat could suddenly be used to better understand developing world
essentials like rice, teff, millet, and sorghum. If scientists could
find a gene in one, they'd be able to locate it in the others.
McCouch started her project as
a way to unlock the door to the rice library; it turned out she cut
a master key.
Generations of unscientific plant
breeding have inadvertently eliminated countless valuable genes and
weakened the natural defenses of our crops. McCouch is recovering
the complexity and magic.
In China, researcher Deng Qiyun, inspired by McCouch's papers, used molecular markers while crossbreeding a wild relative of rice with his country's best hybrid to achieve a 30 percent jump in yield - an increase well beyond anything gained during the Green Revolution.
Who will feed China? Deng will. In India, the poorest of the poor can't afford irrigated land, so they grow unproductive varieties of dryland rice. By some estimates, Indian rice production must double by 2025 to meet the needs of an exploding population. One researcher in Bangalore is showing the way.
H.E. Shashidhar has cataloged the genes of the dryland varieties and used DNA markers to guide the breeding toward a high-yield super-rice.
In West Africa, smart breeders have
created Nerica, a bountiful rice that combines the best traits of
Asian and African parents. Nerica spreads profusely in early stages
to smother weeds. It's disease-resistant, drought-tolerant, and
contains up to 31 percent more protein than either parent.
Irwin Goldman, a horticulture professor at
University of Wisconsin-Madison, cites McCouch's work as critical to
the progress he's made with carrots, onions, and beets. For example,
he has spawned a striped beet through some sophisticated genome
tweaking - and in the process revealed methods to improve the
appearance and taste of all sorts of vegetables.
When both are present, the beet is red. Switch off one gene, as happens in natural mutations, and the beet is gold. Switch it on and off at different stages and the beet becomes striped. Creating a striped beet is not hugely important by itself - striped heirloom varieties date back to 19th-century Italy.
What's significant is that Goldman pinpointed the genes responsible
for the trait and figured out how to turn them on.
Creating the GM version wasn't easy - it required the insertion of two daffodil genes - but it wasn't nearly as difficult as getting it to the people.
As with the Flavr Savr, golden rice drew the ire of the Frankenfood crowd while running afoul of some 70 patents. A natural counterpart wouldn't encounter such problems. Far-fetched? Maybe, considering that there's no known naturally occurring rice containing beta-carotene.
Then again, we never thought carrots had
vitamin E - until Goldman found some.
Many of these qualities not only fight
cancer and increase the nutritional value of our vegetables, but
also make them taste better while helping plants fight disease. We
now have the ability to bring these traits back.
To recover their investment, they release seeds that don't usually pass on the parents' traits, forcing farmers to buy new seed every year. Smart breeding, by contrast, is faster and cheaper because much of it can be done in the lab - reducing the time and expense of growing countless varieties in the field. Goldman's work is funded by university dollars, which allows him to give away the spoils.
He links up with local organics growers,
farmers' markets, and the expanding counter-agribusiness food
movement and hands out open-pollinated seeds - ag's version of open
As head of Cambia (the Center for the Application of Molecular Biology to International Agriculture), a plant science think tank in Canberra, he's sowing the seeds of a revolt, citing the open source ethos of Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman as inspiration.
If McCouch and Goldman are making an end run around GMO by improving on methods that predate genetic engineering, Jefferson is taking a direct approach.
All three scientists use an expanded knowledge of plant genomes to create new crop varieties. But where McCouch and Goldman do gene bank searches and study genome maps to figure out which plants to bring together, Jefferson digs into the genome itself and moves things around. He doesn't insert anything - he calls transgenics "hammer and tong science; as dull as dishwater" - but he's not above tinkering.
His big idea: manipulate plants to teach
ourselves more about them.
He used the money to establish Cambia,
which invents technologies to help developing world scientists
create food varieties without violating GMO patents.
While software code has two possible
values in each position (1 and 0), DNA has four (A, C, T, and G).
What's more, a genome is constantly interacting with itself in ways
that suggest what complexity theorists call emergent behavior. An
organism's traits are often less a reaction to one gene and more a
result of the relationship between many. This makes the expression
of DNA fairly mysterious.
You are different from your siblings
because your parents' genes were unzipped during reproduction and
the 23 chromosomes on each half rejoined in a unique pattern. The
same thing happens in plants. Jefferson has modified native genes to
act as universal switches that turn a plant's latent genes on and
off. Simply put, he's rigging the reproductive shuffle.
One example Jefferson likes to talk about is sentinel corn - a plant-sized version of the GUS gene that would turn red when it needs water.
It may not sound like much, but by the
time a traditional corn plant wilts, it's usually too late. More
efficient irrigation would mean the difference between profit and
loss - or nourishment and starvation.
The real problem, says Jefferson, is not developing the methods, but releasing them into a world of patents.
His solution is to create an open source movement for biotechnology. In his vision, charitable foundations, which have paid for most of the world's public-interest crop science, would fund platform technologies and provide free licenses to public and private scientists.
Commercial end products would be
encouraged, but the basic technology, the OS, would remain in public
hands. To get the whole thing started, Jefferson is offering up
Cambia's portfolio of patents.
Then, after every harvest, we start all
over again. Organic agriculture breaks this cycle. But it's just a
Band-Aid on the wound.
The science is taking hold.
If the business side can clearly
communicate what superorganics are - and what they are not - these
new foods will not only change the way we eat, they'll change the
way we relate to the planet.