The down low on GMOs
Examining some of the science behind genetic engineering
By Trista Crossley
Can you pick out which of these plants are genetically modified according to the definition used by U.S. regulatory agencies?
1) Grapefruit mutagenized with thermal neutrons;
2) The fusion of cells from two different plant species to generate a hybrid with both sets of chromosomes;
3) Doubling the number of chromosomes in a cell/species; or
4) Reduced expression of a specific gene in a species through silencing.
Despite all four sounding like something that would happen through genetic modification (GM or GMO for genetically modified organism), only the last one would actually fall under the definition of a GM plant according to most U.S. regulatory agencies (and to much of the public as well). The other three options are classified as conventional breeding techniques despite the fact that in breeding, conventional or otherwise, DNA is being modified. That idea was one of the main points of the presentation given by Joseph Kuhl, a plant molecular biologist from the University of Idaho, at the 2016 Tri-State Grain Growers Convention last month.
Kuhl’s presentation, “The Dilemma: The Science behind GMOs,” focused on what GM crops are and how they fit with conventionally bred crops. Among other topics, he talked about different types of genetic engineering, common ways researchers insert DNA into cells and his belief that GM products are misunderstood.
“One point I really want to make is that GMO plants and animals are not defined by what they are or what traits they carry, they are defined by the process through which they are generated. It is the method of breeding that is used to generate them that has given rise to this term GMO,” he said. See more
Growers get high marks
A large part of a successful variety trial is the location of the test plots
By Trista Crossley
Choosing which new wheat varieties to test is only part of the recipe for a successful variety testing program. The other part is choosing where to test them, and for that, growers play a central role.
“I couldn’t do this without them, and I’m grateful for their cooperation,” said Ryan Higginbotham, Washington State University (WSU) Extension specialist who runs the Cereal Variety Testing Program. “The variety testing plot program really revolves around farmers being willing to host (test plots) and working with us to find a good trial site. They really play an important role in what we are trying to do.”
Higginbotham works with 30 growers who host, among other crops, winter and spring wheat trials on their land, covering all the rainfall zones in Eastern Washington. He’s got some landowners who’ve hosted a test plot for more than half a decade, as well as a few who are hosting for the first time. His aim, he said, is to make hosting a test plot “business as usual for the farmer.” See more