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Plant Biotechnology

Plant biotechnology is a set of techniques used to adapt plants for specific needs or opportunities.  Situations that combine multiple needs and opportunities are common.  For example, a single crop may be required to provide sustainable food and healthful nutrition, protection of the environment, and opportunities for jobs and income.  Finding or developing suitable plants is typically a highly complex challenge.  

Plant biotechnologies that assist in meeting the challenge include genomics, molecular-assisted selection, and transgenic crops (genetic engineering).  These biotechnologies allow researchers to detect and map genes, discover their functions, select for specific genes in genetic resources and breeding, and transfer genes for specific traits into plants where they are needed.  NIFA funds research, training, and extension for developing and using biotechnologies for food and agriculture. Areas of work include:

Transgenic biotechnology

New potential:  In transgenic biotechnology (also known as genetic engineering and bioengineering), a known gene for a desired trait is inserted into a plant cell.  The cell is grown in tissue culture to develop a full plant.  The transgenic/genetically engineered plant will express the new trait, such as an added nutritional value or resistance to a pest.  The transgenic process is possible because DNA is similar throughout nature.  It allows research to reach beyond closely-related plants, to find useful traits in all of life’s vast resources.   A far wider set of genetic resources can be directed toward solving problems and creating opportunities than has been available before.  

Preserves existing favorable genes and gene combinations:  Both in nature and in research, new genetic combinations are created by processes that include hybridization, mutation, and transgenic movement.  In addition to allowing gene sourcing from a wide range of organism, the transgenic process differs from the other two in the way that it leaves a plant’s existing genetic background largely unaltered.  

  • Hybridization recombines two complete sets of different genes, one from each parent, mixing them into a huge number of random new combinations. 
  • Mutation creates unpredictable changes in many random genes in a single plant. 
  • Transgenic gene movement, in contrast, involves only one or two specific genes inserted into a plant’s existing background of tens of thousands of genes. 

Hybridization and mutation both require that a useful plant’s entire well-suited genetic background be exposed to extensive changes in order to obtain urgently needed new traits.  But in the transgenic process, an inserted gene is only a small fraction of a percent of the plant’s genes, leaving the rest of its genetic make-up unchanged.  This is a long-sought way to add a specific needed trait to an otherwise well-suited plant—without losing its other favorable genes and gene combinations.  The transgenic process can, however, affect other genes in a plant through interaction effects.  For this reason, in research, plants resulting from any of the three processes are extensively tested to select stable, robust plants.

Public research themes: Most public research on transgenic crops focuses in some way on two general objectives: 

  • Better understanding of all aspects of the transgenic/genetic engineering process, for enhancing efficiency, precision, and proper expression of the added genes.  Click here for example projects.


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