Biotech basics 1: Introduction

The first genetic engineers were neolithic hunter-gatherers, who began selecting useful mutations in wild plants (by the simple expedient of saving and replanting their seed) to improve them for human use. This resulted, starting from around 10 000 years ago, in the invention of agriculture in the fertile crescent. This invention, independently made in a number of places since then, revolutionised the lifestyles of the people in the region, transforming them into the citizens of the first great civilisations.

There is a good case to be made, in fact, for farming being the driving force behind civilization itself: growing crops forced people to stay at a single place and led to the construction of towns and cities. The surplus of food produced be farming allowed the development of non-productive castes: kings, priests, soldiers, scribes and taxmen. Farmers, in essence, became the lowest rung of an entire chain of services (including extortion) that make up the basic elements of what we recognise as civilization.

For the longest time the slow, careful method of storing and replanting favoured individuals was the only means of improving crops. The discovery of the principles we now know as population genetics, however, allowed this process to be refined: Breeders could, by taking careful note of individual and population traits (along with their heritability, or ability to be passed on to descendents), determine the most useful crosses to use when selecting individuals. This, along with techniques to allow breeding even between distantly-related plants, made up the bulk of crop development in this century.

More recently still (starting in latter half of the 20th century), the application of emerging technologies allowed the creation of high-yielding crop lines. This was done using a number of approaches: dwarf phenotypes in wheat (caused by a defective gene for a specific plant hormone) and hybrid lines in maize (made by crossing two distantly-related maize varieties to take advantage of so-called hybrid vigour) for instance. The result, however, was phenomenal.

These advances (specifically those in wheat breeding, along with a number of new approaches in farm practices, pesticides and fertilizers) later became known as the green revolution. This revolution singlehandedly raised the farming productivity of the planet, almost doubling the amount of food that the world produced. Ironically, the new crops were not very popular with the nascent green movement. This is, it seems, a cyclical problem with new crop technologies: bitter resistance followed by placid acceptance a generation or so later. Which, of course, happens at the same time as bitter resistance against the new technology.

Most recently of all (from the mid 80s onwards), crop scientists began using new technologies developed to identify, isolate and characterise DNA to alter crops at a molecular level. These technologies, lumped together under the banner of ‘genetic modification’ are seen by crop scientists as the starting point for a new green revolution: one which could potentially have even more widespread and positive effects than the last one. As for the opponents of this new wave of biotechnology: see above.

For the really keen: a wikipedia run-down of the green revolution and an interview with one of my personal heroes (and a leading figure in the green revolution): Norman Borlaug

The technology of plant genetic engineering will be explained in part two.

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