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Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods Paperback – October 30, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Is genetically engineered Golden Rice (enriched with vitamin A) a dangerous "Frankenfood" or a safe, nutritionally enhanced food that could fill a major vitamin deficiency in the Third World? Fedoroff, a molecular biologist and member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, and science writer Brown (A Good Horse Has No Color) argue forcefully for the latter view, saying we should embrace most of the advances genetic engineering has made in the agricultural arena. In an extremely accessible style, they take readers through the basics of genetics and genetic engineering to demonstrate why they believe that the risks associated with this technology are trivial. They also contend that the use of modern molecular technology to insert genes from one species into another isn't very different from the hybrid crosses that agriculturalists have been doing for millennia. Taking on concerns voiced by environmentalists, the authors articulate how genetically modified crops could reduce the amount of pesticides and fertilizers used and increase the yield of crop plants to keep up with a growing world population that could reach eight or nine billion in this century. Though likely to be controversial, the authors' clear and rational presentation could well change the opinions of some readers. Illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Some countries, many in Europe, have imposed bans on importing and growing GM crops. Others, notably the U.S., have grown, cooked and eaten them without knowing about it, or seeming to care that they don't know."
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Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle. As a trained Plant Breeder, Geneticist and Agronomist I manage my own crops and advise my growers to take advantage of all tools available to them to maximize their crops while keeping in mind the long-term sustainability of their farming practices and the ROI (return on investment) for each of their management actions; broke farmers cannot stay on the land and continue to be good stewards. At home, I grow most of my own fruits and vegetables. There, I use conventional fertilizers as well as green manures and mulches of orchard and packing shed trimmings. I utilize crop rotation, intercropping and resistant, hybrid varieties. Hoeing is common and low-impact herbicides are used only on the peripheries. Insecticides and fungicides are used very sparingly, on an as needed basis only to address very serious losses (cosmetic damage is tolerated). Low-impact materials are used first; ratcheting up in intensity through the arsenal only as necessary. Many seasons, no insecticides or fungicides are applied to any of the crop plants.
The authors open the book with an overview chapter which touches on several of the methods used over the last several hundred years to modify plants and cropping systems; none of them required quarantines, FDA-EPA approval or consumer labels. The authors peg 1860 as the year plant biotechnology began. That is the year German botanist Julius von Sachs demonstrated crops could be grown from seed to seed hydroponically without the need for soil and with the addition of only certain minerals in very specific ratios. In the 1950's Skoog and Miller isolated the family of plant hormones they would call cytokinins which are essential for coaxing undifferentiated plant cells into forming roots and shoots. The art and science of plant tissue culture was born. The somatic cells of many plants maintain their totipotency, that is their ability to differentiate and become any type of plant tissue, thus cells from different parts of a plant can be cultured into masses of undifferentiated cells called `callus' and then induced to form roots and shoots and grow an entire new plant. Tissue culture allowed scientists to "rescue" the embryos produced by interspecific crosses that would normally not have developed into germinable seed. Later in the 1960's, the process of hand pollinating interspecific crosses was dispensed with all together. The cells of two different, closely related species had their cell walls stripped off and their protoplasts were fused directly in a petri dish. Protoplast fusion has been used often to introgress new genes into cultivated rice from its wild relatives and to produce tomato-potato chimaeras. With plants in tissue culture, they could more easily be exposed to mutagenic processes to generate new genetic variation. Very often, the variations had no benefit or were even deleterious, but occasionally they produced beneficial variations that, because they occurred at the nuclear DNA level, were heritable. The chemical colchicine, isolated from saffron crocus, was found to cause a plant's chromosomes to double. This allowed breeders to stabilize the sterile hybrids of durum wheat and rye to create the hybrid grain triticale. Colchicine was instrumental in the development of seedless watermelons. The very popular durum wheat variety `Creso' was created by exposing plants to neutrons and x-rays and then selecting and crossing desirable mutants. Gamma rays were used to create the popular malting barley variety `Golden Promise'. The very popular, gourmet rice variety `Calrose 76' was developed by exposing seeds to gamma rays from Cobalt-60. Mutation breeding has been used to develop varieties of wheat that are resistant to specific herbicides, just like RoundUp ready varieties, but are not considered GMO's. Even the process of plant tissue culture itself induces a type of random, genetic mutation called somaclonal variation. The point is, "Literally millions of genetically altered, but not gene-spliced, plants are field tested each year without governmental oversight or strictures..." (p18). Also with no adverse environmental or consumer affects ever reported and not a single requirement, ever, for a "mutation bred" label.
The rest of the book is really a Tour de Force through the early development work in genetics and plant biology to put all of the necessary building blocks in place leading to the ability to construct and insert a specific DNA sequence into a plant and have a desired trait expressed. The book could just have easily been subtitled: A Who is Who of Nobel Prize Winning Laureates in Chemistry and Biology as it Pertains to Plant Biotechnology. What quickly becomes evident is how much innovative, cutting-edge research had to be done before the first recombinant DNA, gene-spliced organisms could be developed.
Along the way, the authors introduce the reader to some interesting facts about cultivar development, genetics and plant biochemistry. We get an explanation of the origins of cultivated wheat varieties, diploid Einkorn wheat, tetraploid Emmer wheat, and hexaploid bread wheat. Next, a vignette into the long, sometimes contentious, debate as to whether or not modern corn was derived from teosinte or some otherwise extinct South American grass species. Eventually the debate would largely be put to rest by molecular geneticists using genetic markers and statistical analysis; firmly in the teosinte camp.
Of course, we learn about Luther Burbank, Thomas Malthus, Gregor Mendel, Charles Darwin, George Shull (the father of modern corn hybrids?), Henry Wallace (founder of Pioneer Seed) and Norman Borlaug. But this book is really much more focused on biotechnology developments in the latter half of the 20th century, with a bit of digression to the origins of quantitative genetics after Mendel's work was rediscovered in the early part of the 20th century by DeVries and Correns and then expanded upon by the famous fruit fly inheritance experiments of Thomas Hunt Morgan. But, the book really picks up after the discovery of the complex structure of DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953. After this we learn all about: the "one gene, one enzyme" Nobel Prize research of Beadle, Barbara McClintock's Nobel Prize research into "jumping genes" (transposons), Lederberg's Nobel Prize research on how bacteria have plasmids that can transfer DNA to the genome of another bacteria, how Arber and Smith shared a Nobel prize for using restriction enzymes to analyze DNA, then Paul Berg received a Nobel Prize for the first lab created recombinant DNA molecule and Kary Mullis received his Nobel Prize for inventing the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method of amplifying gene fragments. All of this is some pretty heavy stuff; it is evident that the target audience for the authors is probably not casual, general science readers.
I wish there had been more on the economic reasons that the West is so anti-GMO. For that, 'Starved for Science', also here on Amazon, gives the scoop.
It covers just about every interesting and controversial point in the field in terms a layman can easily understand, and you come away with an excellent understanding of how plants are bred and how their genes are manipulated to produce better plants.