Agriculture leads the way in biotechnology revolution

For an industry that routinely is accused of resisting change, agriculture has been at the forefront in recent years in embracing new technology and promptly applying it to the farm. The genetic revolution — still a theoretical concept to many — is being carried out on a daily basis in fields throughout the rural Southeast.

As a result, farmers, for the most part, have a far greater knowledge of subjects such as biotechnology and genetic engineering than the average American. Much attention was focused this past year on the completion of human genome mapping. But at the same time, a majority of the general public probably was unaware of the advances already made in the genetic mapping of other animal and plant species.

American farmers have readily adopted the technology based on these advances to help increase crop yields and make significant reductions in the use of insecticides and herbicides. Genetically altered crop varieties — unheard of just 10 years ago — now are the norm in most cotton and soybean fields.

In some cases, insect- and herbicide-resistant crops have been used as additional tools to help farmers reduce operating costs while reaping environmental benefits. In other cases, such as in north Alabama's Tennessee Valley in 1996, genetically altered crops such as Bt cotton have been instrumental in allowing some farmers to stay in business.

What's truly exciting about all of this new technology is that the products we're using today are just the beginning. As researchers make further advances in this ever-evolving science, the insect- and herbicide-resistant crops of today will become the T-Models of tomorrow.

One noteworthy advance in the Southeast was the recent announcement that a group of University of Georgia researchers have completed the first comprehensive molecular map of the peanut plant. Like a roadmap, this research will give scientists the directions they need to develop better varieties for farmers and better products for consumers.

Mapping plant genes has revolutionized crop breeding over the past decade, says Andrew Paterson, a plant geneticist. And, while most major crops already have genetic maps, the peanut was especially difficult, he says.

“We have developed landmarks and determined how the landmarks are arranged with respect to one another (within the peanut plant),” says Paterson. “The landmarks enable us to determine what important genes are nearby.”

The map, he continues, is the beginning of a framework for a physical map and sequence for the peanut genome. “The molecular map is like putting mileposts along the highways. The physical map is like driving along the highways from milepost to milepost,” says Paterson. “The sequence is having total and immediate recall of everything that lies along every highway.”

This kind of information, he says, can help plant breeders develop better peanut plants. “One of the important uses of the map is to transfer desirable genes from wild relatives and exclude undesirable genes. This is badly needed in peanuts,” says the scientist.

By understanding genes, scientists can develop plants with good traits, such as better quality and yields, says John Beasley, Extension peanut specialist. In South America — where the peanut originated — many wild peanut species still grow that have immunity or resistance to pest problems found in the Southeast, says Beasley.

Researchers could take those traits and place them into a peanut that a Georgia farmer can grow, he adds. “Farmers would benefit because any improvement in yield and quality will provide an economic benefit to the grower. And a more drought-tolerant cultivar would require less water.”

Genetic technology has become central in the development of many crops, says Paterson, and it will continue to grow in importance as the cost of the technology becomes cheaper.

Paterson's lab in Athens, Ga., also has developed the world's leading genetic maps for cotton, sorghum, sugarcane and buffel grass. His future plans include mapping Bermuda grass and cactus.

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