Biotechnology has found a place in agriculture like never before. In the United States, corn, soybeans and cotton constitute the predominant biotech crops. They do bring in certain positive environmental advantages as the consumption of herbicides and pesticides are considerably less when biotech crops are grown. It is a known fact that ploughing results in erosion of topsoil. But genetically modified crops limit how much you need to plough to eradicate weeds. Research studies indicate that biotech crops prevent the erosion of as much as 1 billion tons of topsoil annually.
Biotechnology offers innumerable benefits to the farmer in terms of pest, disease and herbicide resistant seeds and the luxury of crops that can withstand extremes of drought, cold, and weather conditions that are otherwise far from conducive for farmers.
Agricultural technologies over the ages
The idea of creating newer varieties of crops is nothing new, and has been around for hundreds of years. For example, farmers have crossed and selected beneficial varieties of crop for greater productivity. But this type of classical breeding is possible only between closely related species. Moreover, in this type of breeding each parent donates exactly one half of its genetic material, so the progeny is likely to have a mixture of desirable and undesirable characteristics (genes). To select and retain only the good traits using conventional cross breeding techniques would be a time consuming process, as for example, if it is a perennial crop the time needed would be in generations. The aim of conventional breeding and biotechnology related breeding techniques is the same--that is to create efficient and super crops, but the difference lies in the fact that while conventional breeding relies on the physical characteristics of the plant organism, biotechnology relies on the genetic make-up of the individual plants.
So the question arises as to what is special about biotechnology in the realm of agriculture? Biotechnology allows regeneration of plant materials under laboratory conditions to make it disease free; to indulge in tissue and cell culture for making reagents suitable for diagnosing plant illnesses; and to use molecular methods to select plants with desirable characteristics. Biotechnology also allows scientists to look at the genes of the plant and using that information transfer that gene to another plant.
Using biotechnology induced mutation, it is now possible to create hundreds of varieties of crops in rice, wheat, barley and other agricultural produce and broaden genetic diversity. How can induced mutations be carried out? The idea is to mimic spontaneous mutations by treating plants with chemical mutagens and selecting whatever changes were wanted. In recent times, mutation techniques have been extrapolated to applications for gene discovery. In short, biotechnology can better the process of conventional breeding methods.
Genomics in agriculture
Researching the structure of genomes is probably one of the biggest gains of biotechnology, especially when it comes to identifying commercially important traits in valuable crops. One of the important findings has been that, common attributes could be shared by genomes, in species that are not related in any way. For example, the sequence of rice genome and the sequence of other cereal genomes share common attributes, and this helps not only in studying the illnesses that afflict these crops, but also in creating model species for several crops.
Synteny is a kind of genetic linkage that establishes the genetic content along the chromosomes of various plant genomes. This means it is wrong to assume that every plant has its own genetic map. On the contrary, related species have similar gene maps. Studies have shown that there exists syntenous connection between the tomato and potato and similarities in the genomes of rice, wheat and maize. As a matter of fact, the chromosome fragments of several extinct species can be seen in their living cousins.
Application of synteny in agriculture is helpful for conducting studies on the evolution of plant species, as for example, by knowing the presence of a gene in one species, biologists can predict its presence in another species. For example, genes isolated from wheat and barley could be present in the same sequence in rice too. This is the method by which identification and isolation of genes tolerant to acidic soil and disease have been made with respect to barley and rye. The Green Revolution in India became possible only because of the transfer of wheat dwarfing genes to rice. Synteny helped locate the gene in rice, then it was isolated and re-engineered with DNA sequence alteration characteristic of the wheat genes, and finally this engineered gene was placed in rice.
The pest and disease problems encountered by Banana plants cannot be solved by using pesticides. The problem is further accentuated by the fact that every new banana plant that springs up could be diseased or susceptible to pests as well, because banana plants reproduce clonally. By using the method of micropropagation, biotechnology can solve this problem. This involves heat-treating banana shoot tips to destroy infective organisms and then through tissue culture create new disease-free plants.
This involves the process of development of nutritionally enhanced crop plants using biotechnology. Using techniques of genetic linkage mapping, genes responsible for enhanced nutritional levels are transferred to crops through conventional breeding or genetic engineering, as for example, to increase the protein content in maize and iron in rice. Another example is the case of the transgenic Golden Rice that has three incorporated genes, namely two from the daffodil, and another from bacteria that produces proVitamin A. An Indian University has developed a nutritionally enhanced potato with double the quantity of proteins than usual, including essential amino acids as well.
Agricultural biotechnology in developing countries
In developing countries like India, producing more food grains to feed the one billion plus people is the key to prosperity. Towards this, several biotechnology companies including Monsanto and Syngenta, have begun implementing GM crop programs. For example, production of Bt cotton in the southern part of India is a reality
As far as biotechnology is concerned, the size of the farm is immaterial. So whether you farm vegetables in your backyard or cultivate in a large farm extending to several thousand acres, the key point is to have a biorational way of cultivation. That is the best way to grow not only healthier plants for ensuring food security, but also to protect our planet for future generations. Of course biotechnology is a science that can help bring about this transformational change.
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