Biotechnology in Agriculture
The term Agriculture refers to cultivation of Plants, Animals for food, fuels, clothes, Medicine and other products which are essential for our living. Conventional Agriculture is practiced differently by different people around the globe. It is well known that agricultural products have varying quality from place to place. Some of the agricultural products cannot be seen in some parts of the world, while they are abundant in rest of the world. This difference is due to several factors including climatic conditions, weather, availability of water, mineral content in the soil, and last but not least political and geographical factors. Another factor which led to the development of modern agriculture is the need to increase yield and disease, pest, drought resistance in plant products.
Biotechnology has emerged from traditional science to overcome the problems in every aspect of life sciences, from plant breeding to genetic engineering. Out of the vast applications of Biotechnology, Agricultural Biotechnology is one. It involves the development of plants in such a way that, plants produce high yields of products such as grains, vegetables, fruits, leaves (leafy vegetables) and they can tolerate extreme conditions such as high temperature, high salinity in water and high humidity in the air. Furthermore we can produce plant products as per our needs, and we can control the features like colour, taste, odour and size of fruits and vegetables. All this is made possible by exploiting the properties of the miracle molecules called DNA (De Oxy Ribose Nucleic Acid). Since the discovery of DNA, scientists have developed the solutions to overcome the problems in Agriculture, by modifying the genetic structure of the DNA.
The crops whose DNA has been modified are called “Transgenic Plants” or “Transgenic Crops”, and the products derived from these plants are called Genetically Modified plant products. So, how is this done? All the living beings, including animals, plants, bacteria, fungi and microorganisms have DNA, which guides their development and the pathway to their survival. This DNA in turn is divided in “genes”, which are specific for each and every feature and function of a living organism. This means, if we modify the genes, we are actually modifying any particular ‘feature’ or ‘function’ of that organism or any part of that organism. The same principle is applied in Agricultural Biotechnology as well. If we are looking to enhance the colour of the flowers produced by a plant, we can alter the genetic structure of gene which is responsible for that colour. This procedure can applied to any part of the plant, another example would be increasing the sweetness of a fruit, in this case we modify the gene responsible for production of fructose. Fructose is a sugar which gives sweetness to fruits, in theory, if we change the gene to produce more fructose, and then the fruit will become sweeter.
The major breakthrough in Agriculture was seen, when the “Flavr Savr” tomatoes were introduced into the US markets on May 21, 1994(Bruening and Lyons, 2000). This discovery led to the foundation for storing vegetables and fruits without refrigerator for several days. Studies at Calgene, Inc., in 1980 suggested that an enzyme called Polyglacturonase was responsible to dissolve the pectin of the cell-wall; in turn the tomato started decaying. In 1987, the researchers at Calgene, Inc., have cloned a gene complimentary to the Polyglacturonase producing gene, using antisense RNA technology (Martineau and Gresshoff, 1997). This antisense gene will block the Polyglacturonase gene and thus stops the production of Polyglacturonase. As the cell wall decaying enzyme is produced in very little quantities, the delay in spoilage of fruits and vegetables is increased. Now this revolutionary technology is used to save millions of dollars every year, by reducing the wastage of fruits and vegetables during transport.
We have discussed only a very few applications from the huge database of Biotechnological applications in Agriculture. While we have seen only the benefits of Biotechnology, at the same time everything in this world has its own pros and cons and Biotechnology is no exception for this. Non Scientific community has said much about the potential risks of Biotechnology to us and our environment, but so far there is little evidence from the scientific studies that the risks are real. At the same time we experience the range of benefits offered by transgenic plants, beyond the ones which emerged from traditional Agricultural practices.