What is agricultural biotechnology?

Agricultural biotechnology is a science that includes modifying organisms by manipulating, replacing or removing genes.

For thousands of years, humans have manipulated nature to grow the best crops and livestock. By matching together various strains of crops or animals, we've guided the developmental path of countless organisms. If you were to step back in time thousands of years, the crops you'd see would look very different -- in some cases, they'd be unrecognizable!

Agricultural biotechnology is a set of tools and disciplines meant to modify organisms for a particular purpose. That purpose can include anything from coaxing greater yields from food crops to building in a natural resistance to certain diseases. Though there are multiple ways to accomplish this goal, the method that tends to get the most attention from the public is genetic modification.

Genes are the basic units of hereditary information. A gene is a segment of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that expresses a particular trait or contributes to a specific function. Genes determine everything from the color of your eyes to whether or not you are allergic to certain substances.

As we learn more about which genes affect different aspects of an organism, we can take steps to manipulate that feature or function. One way to do this is to take genetic information from one organism and introduce it into another -- even if that organism belongs to a completely different species. For example, if you found out that a particular bacterium had a resistance to a certain herbicide, you might want to lift those genes so that you could introduce them into crops. Then you could use herbicides to wipe out pest plants such as weeds while the crops remain safe.

While some people might think that changing organisms at such a fundamental level is unnatural, the truth is that we've been using a much cruder method of shaping organisms for centuries. When farmers crossbreed plants, they are engaging in a primitive form of this methodology. But with crossbreeding, all the genes of one type of organism are introduced to all the genes of the second organism. It's not precise, and it can take generations of plants before farmers arrive at the desired result.

Agricultural biotechnology lets scientists pick and choose which genes are introduced to an organism. Let's take a look at some of the benefits of this technology.