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Friday, April 12, 2024

UW-Madison researcher genetically engineers plants

OK, maybe they are not faster, but they do provide us with better, stronger and healthier plants to eat.  




In the '70s television show \The Six Million Dollar Man"" Lee Majors played Steve Austin, a test pilot whose body is put back together after a crippling accident using high-tech parts. These new parts allow him to become better, stronger and faster. This process shares much with the way geneticists manipulate the genes of plants and animals to bring out desired traits. 




Dave Nelson, a third-year genetics graduate student, works with the genome, or genetic blueprint of Arabidopsis, a small, fast-growing plant in the mustard family. He is trying to identify genes that form a type of protein that is involved in a host of mechanisms, including signaling and sensing of stimuli like plant hormones, light and cell division.  




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""We study this simple weed as a model. ... If we can figure this one out, we can see how higher organisms and crops work,"" Nelson said. 




There are two main methods of genetic manipulation, transgenics and classical genetics. Transgenics is the process of incorporating a gene that contains information for a certain trait, such as the production of growth hormones, into an organism that does not naturally possess this trait. Because classical genetics involves breeding traits into plants and animals, the results of an experiment can take several generations to manifest. With transgenics, you could see results in the first crop.  




""Classical genetics is like trying to build a house with a saw. You can do a lot of good with just that, but now imagine you have access to a whole hardware store full of tools, that's what transgenics gives you,"" said Richard Vierstra, a UW-Madison horticulture professor. 




Additionally, transgenics allows scientists to take any gene from any source and to place it into the genome of any other organism. In classical genetics, plants of one species can only breed with plants from the same species. 




However, Phil Simon, a professor of horticulture at UW-Madison, said, ""Classical genetics is the proven method. It is still the mainstay for crop improvement, in every crop. Given a ten year-long experiment, classical genetics will have a definite, positive outcome-that's something you can't be sure of with transgenics."" 




Simon's focus is in genetics and breeding of nutritional plants, specifically carrot and garlic.  




""Ninety-five percent of the carrots you eat have genetic traits from my project,"" Simon said. ""What we do is really to start the process. What comes out at the end is a result of the seed industry, grocery and consumers. Classical genetics helps keep the price of food low. The fact that it is currently such a small percentage of our income is a testimony to the success of the system!"" 




Richard Amasino, professor of biochemistry at UW-Madison, uses genetic analysis to try to determine the mechanism of seasonal plant flowering. 




""Classical genetics can turn a grass into corn,"" said Amasino. ""Corn plants today in the United States look nothing like wild corn, which was originally a grass with just a few seeds. We've created a very robust ear of corn, but the plant would not able to survive on its own because of how we've bred it. 




Currently most of the genetically modified crops are produced by industry. They research corn that produces natural pesticides, soybeans that are resistant to certain herbicides and rice that produces essential nutrients that are deficient in entire populations.  




""Genetic modification has the potential, in the agricultural world, to alleviate the problems of fertilizer and pesticide runoff destroying the lakes,"" said Amasino. 




In order to improve our situation though genetic modification, Simon said he believes communication is the key. 




""We must get the whole story out to people. People in academia need to be communicating with consumers. There needs to be a dialogue,"" he said. 




Nelson said also sees great rewards in genetic modification but expresses one caveat. 




""We need to educate the public on the real dangers and benefits of it. Everyone must use caution when using genetic modification. Like electricity, there is some danger, but there are a lot of potential benefits.\

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