Traditional methods of plant modification, such as selective breeding and crossbreeding, have been used for nearly 10,000 years. Humans have always made efforts to benefit from new varieties of species by cultivating and adapting crop breeding to regional preferences. The majority of plants that we eat today have been altered by humans, utilizing various methods that enable them to choose properties based on their needs.
Humans have been altering crops through centuries of trial and error
Earlier, crop improvement was done naturally by sowing and choosing different seeds and observing the harvests. Farmers in the past were likely to breed a variant they liked, such as a tomato plant that produced juicier fruit, in order to ensure the trait was passed on.
Through generations of repetition, human beings have controlled evolution through this method of selective breeding. Due to high demand for desirable traits in crops, only a small portion of the several hundred thousand plant species in the world have withstood this rigorous selection process.
The Birth of Modern Plant Genetics
Despite the fact that plant breeding has existed since the dawn of agriculture, contemporary scientific breeding is just around a century old. Gregor Johann Mendel, commonly referred to as the “father of genetics,” is credited as the founder of the field of plant genetics.
Around the 1860s, Mendel laid the groundwork for the dissection of the underlying genetic basis of features. His pea plant studies established many of the laws of heredity, today known as the laws of Mendelian inheritance.
Modern Scientific Plant Breeding fast tracks in 20th Century
Mendel’s work remained unnoticed until 1900, when it received more attention in Europe. Plant breeding significantly impacted by the genetic revolution that occurred after 1900. During this period, work on cross-pollinated crops was characterized by the improvement of landraces (locally adapted plant species) and open-pollinated populations, as well as significant efforts to create inbred lines from these populations.
Fast forward to the latter part of the 20th century – scientists were able to make similar alterations in a more specific method and in a shorter amount of time after developing genetic engineering in the 1970s. As a result, the improvement of plants became methodical and devoid of chance.
Advanced Genetic Engineering is helping revolutionize crop breeding
In the last few decades, scientists and plant breeders have begun using “gene splicing” to make far more predictable changes in the DNA of our crops. The resulting plant is referred to as a “genetically modified organism,” or GMO. This terminology has been misled by the naysayers emphasising that earlier selective breeding did not modify plants. However, as mentioned above plant modification was always part of the nature.
GMOs have been transformative for both farmers and consumers. In Bangladesh, where the government developed license-free transgenic brinjal (eggplant) in 2014 using technology donated by major biotechnology companies, farmers reduced pesticide spraying from 80 times a season to under five, yields increased by 20%, and there was a huge cut in medical care for applicators (mostly women and children).
The most recent advancement in this continuous line of genetic modification is genome editing (or gene editing), which allows small and precise changes to enhance desirable traits (nutrition, etc.) and disable unfavorable traits in crops. CRISPR-Cas9, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and CRISPR-associated Protein 9, is the most well-known of these.
Scientists and product developers are collaborating to create communication frameworks in order to engage the public in science communication and education in a holistic manner. Lately, scientific communicators, scientists, academicians are coming forward to simplify the scientific jargons and provide fact based data and evidence to highlight the benefits of new breeding innovations for farmers and consumers. Genetic engineering has demonstrated massive potential to address many important issues, such as decreasing the use of crop protection products, conserving energy, natural resources along with enhancing socio economic status of farmers. The positive reinforcement can be seen from the easing out of regulatory approvals of gene editing guidelines globally. It means that consumers, policy makers understand the benefits that new breeding innovations can bring to the farmers and the country alike. It will now enable wider adoption of various beneficial genetic applications in health, agriculture, and food.