Hard to believe, looking at the yards-long list of just soybean, cotton and corn varieties containing genetic modifications, that the precursors to transgenic crops included tobacco plants and petunias.
Equally mind-boggling is the realization that biotechnology has been an important part of agricultural research for 20 years.
In the last two decades, a process that seemed as far-fetched as celestial travel to folks on the nub of the 20th century, moved from theory to accepted practice.
“But, if you think the last 20 years was something, wait until you see the next 20,” says Fred Perlak, a research scientist at Monsanto's Chesterfield, Mo., facility.
“We're still learning how genes interact and that will have a tremendous effect on agriculture. I'm an optimist and believe we are in the golden age of agricultural research. It's tough on the farm now, but the future is bright for patient, persistent people.”
The process began with less than a certain outcome. Perlak began working with bacillus thuringensies (Bt) in the University of Massachusetts graduate school and took that knowledge to Monsanto in 1981.
“Recombinant DNA studies were just coming on,” he says, “and our task was to discover ways to use this new technology to solve problems in agriculture. We were especially interested in insecticides.”
Perlak recalls several catalysts that encouraged genetic research for crops. Pesticide registration was a lumbering, time-consuming process. Environmental pressures to eliminate or limit crop protection chemical use increased. And some of farmers' most trusted insecticides suddenly fell to the inevitable: resistance.
Those were the spurs prodding scientists like Perlak to charge ahead to develop plants with built-in toxins.
“It took us a while to figure out the issues,” Perlak says, “We had an idea of what we wanted but we were feeling our way through the process for years. We learned how to genetically engineer plants and as scientists we could see how to get there. We did not anticipate the obstacles.”
The primary challenge was getting Bt genes into a plant. Bt was a particularly beneficial, naturally occurring insecticide. “It offers a potent toxin to a narrow range of insect pests,” he says. “It's innocuous and non-harmful for non-target speciess.
“We considered it the perfect insecticide. But pulling it into plants was difficult.”
For one thing, plants didn't particularly appreciate their genetic material being manipulated. “Plants did not like it. The material was a poor insecticide inside the plant.”
He explains that plants had a hidden signal inside that limited efficacy of the foreign genetic material.
“We had to rewrite the codes,” Perlak says. “We had to simplify the new genetics to be understandable by the plant.”
That simplification process took six or seven years.
Enter petunia and tobacco. “Petunias are easy to regenerate, so we could make a lot of transfers and get results quickly,” Perlak said.
“Tobacco plants are similar. They grow well in greenhouses, produce many seed and are easy to regenerate.”
Tobacco plants also host some of agriculture's most devastating insect pests, Perlak says. “We could test for tobacco budworm, bollworms and other pests on tobacco.”
Transferring what they learned from petunias and tobacco into cotton and soybeans, however, took a bit more patience.
“It became a painstaking, slow process,” Perlak says. “We need a year to get a cotton plant back after we start the process. With tobacco or tomato plants, we can turn the process around in 10 weeks or less.”
Other problems also arose.
“We did not know how the concept would work in the field. Would it be better or worse than in the greenhouse? Would the insect resistance express itself throughout the season?
“Would it work different under different growing conditions and with different backgrounds?
“We wondered if results would vary by farm. And we wondered if the agricultural industry would embrace the technology or shun it. We knew we had to provide value to the farmer or the research was worthless.”
Perlak says the environmental repercussions also caught scientists by surprise. “Usually, environmental objections to pesticides are based on emotional reactions, misperceptions, and fear of the unknown. We always assume the scientific process will win. And it does, in the end, but it takes time.”
Perlak says Bollgard cotton has been available to farmers now for seven years. “Farmers understand the value and the limitations. They use it as a tool, as we intended. It's not a panacea but something farmers can use with their other tools.
“It's the same with Roundup Ready technology. Roundup Ready soybeans came out in 1996 and Roundup Ready cotton in 1997. The technology provides new tools for growers, offering timesavings, convenience and a simplified weed control program. It has limitations, as we always knew it would.
“But Roundup Ready technology has had a tremendous effect across the Cotton Belt.”
Perlak says he was pleasantly surprised at how quickly farmers adopted the technology.
Those tools may be just the beginning of a box full of biotech gear.
“We see tremendous potential for the future,” Perlak says. “We hope to improve the quality of foods. That offers our next big challenge.”
Enhanced nutrition, manipulating amino acids to make foods more healthy and providing pharmaceutical plants loom on the horizon.
“We can speed new variety development and get these products to consumers,” Perlak says.