Biotechnology HQ

Gene Food: Is Biotechnology Really Friendly?

Biotechnology, a '90s buzzword, popularly conjures up somewhat ominous images of gene-tinkering. Yet manipulating the genetic makeup of plants and animals to improve crop yields is far from new. Cross-breeding for desired traits such as tallness, greater milk yield or sweeter fruits, has been practiced ever since humans took up farming. However classical breeding methods have drawbacks, especially the length of time required to achieve the desired quality. Traditional cross-breeding means crossing all the genes in two plants or animals for maybe 10, 12 or more years, to create one with the desired trait(s). Also, traditional cross-breeding can only be used within individuals of the same (or related) species - further limiting its ability to enhance or alter food quality.

What are the benefits of biotechnology? And are they, really?

Biotechnology can dramatically reduce the time and effort required to improve crops and livestock. The technique allows scientists to modify plants and animals in a more controlled way, choosing selected genes for cross-breeding instead of crossing hundreds of genes through many generations to obtain the desired characteristic. The new technique allows the transfer of one or a few selected gene at a time, for just one or a few desirable traits. And the technique even permits genes with certain traits to be transferred from one species to another, impossible by traditional breeding methods.

The basis of modern food biotechnology depends on the molecule deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA, the genetic material of all living cells. It is contained in the chromosomes (threadlike structures) inside the cell nucleus. Unravelling the molecular structure of DNA opened the door to rapid advances in food biotechnology. instead of mixing all the hundreds of genes within a plant or animal in back-crossing, scientists can now "select out" a particular gene (length of DNA) responsible for a particular trai