A spate of recent articles on the sequencing of plant genomes got me started thinking about the question of molecular breeding. A rather recent practice, molecular breeding offers, among other things, the allure of better nutrition.
Since Mendelev mapped our basic understanding of how traits are passed from parent to progeny, plant breeders have been working to “improve” plants by selectively breeding for desirable traits. The process has remained essentially unchanged for several hundred years. In its most assertive form, breeders examine the traits of adult plants and cross breed them, in the hopes of getting the desired adult traits. Then we started mapping genomes.
Mention genetic mapping, and most people immediately think of genetically modified salmon, or BT corn. These are situations where the reproductive process has been by-passed, and foreign genes manually inserted into another genome. But the knowledge gleaned from genetic mapping can be applied in a myriad of ways. One of the more subtle, yet still powerful applications, is the use of a mapped genome for selecting plants to breed. This approach allows selective cross-breeding of long-lost varieties of plants with more common varieties to produce plants with totally new attributes. One of the great advantages of this approach is that plants (or animals) bred using this process are not classified as “genetically modified organisms.” This is advantageous for a number of reasons, with regulatory concerns being high on the list.
Breeding For Better Nutrition
The importance of molecular breeding for private companies has been growing for years. Plant varieties nearing commercial availability include corn rich in vitamin A, and rice that is more resistant to flooding. Molecular breeders have developed a variety of soy that has zero trans fats, which they hope to market as a healthy oil. More recently, having completed mapping the genomes of the cocoa plant and the woodland strawberry, molecular breeders have turned their eyes toward the development of plants richer in cocoa flavonoids.
Over a century ago, the Royal Society expressed concerns about the ability of our planet to provide enough food to support the existing population. Over the course of the last century, the advent of artificial fertilizer, better yielding plants, and improved production methods, have kept that concern at bay.
Now, they are again expressing that concern, but its at the advent of a time when the more elegant, subtle methods of rigorously controlled molecular breeding techniques should provide the tools for incorporating the unique health benefits of many long-abandoned plant varieties into many of the hardier, more production-friendly plant varieties whose properties have been refined through selective breeding over the last several centuries.
Like it or not, the application of these emerging techniques are the tools most likely to meet the demands of our growing world. Molecular breeding offers the advantage of avoiding the ethical concerns associated with genetic modification, since the process relies on reproduction between plants of the same species. In fact, the process could offer a dramatic benefit over other techniques, since it relies on incorporating the properties of plant varieties discarded long ago. Breeders can explore the global seed vault, in search of treasures long ago discarded.
What’s your opinion on this subject. Would you find the commercialization of plants bred by molecular processes to be objectionable, or would you find them unacceptable?