Hybrids vs. GMOs

In this installment I will be briefly discussing the differences in the production of hybrid plants from genetically modified plants.

Creating edible crops with desirable traits has been the role of agriculture since the dawn of human civilization. Bred for both appearance and taste, hybrid plant and cultivars compose the majority of the food market. A hybrid is a plant resulting from a cross between two different plants. Two different genomes have merged. One key point is that hybridization cannot occur unless the parent plants are closely enough related that they can interbreed.

Take for instance, the pluot. The pluot is about 70% plum and 30% apricot. Because the plum and apricot are related (same genus), the pollen between the two is compatible. So the pollen is transferred from the plum to the apricot. The seeds generated are grown and desirable traits—like a tasty new fruit—are looked for. This would be considered hand hybridization. In hand hybridizing, the pollen transfer between similar plants simulates a natural interaction that would have occurred given enough time.

Whether starting from scratch or fine-tuning the traits of a variety, hybridization takes time and land. Initially, you identify plants with desirable traits; crossbreed those plants; grow the offspring, then wait to see if traits show up. Hybridized plants are often sterile, and can’t produce viable seeds.

While similar in parts to creating a hybrid, genetic engineering utilizes a process that facilitates the selection of a successful composite by looking for specific genetic markers relating to the desired trait. The basic motive of finding desirable traits to compliment your plant remains unchanged. Yet there is one very large difference. In the genetic engineering lab, compatible genes can come from a wide variety of sources. Simply put, the potential combinations are not restricted to similar organisms. They are not even restricted to the plant kingdom. The number of potential outcomes has increased astronomically. Combinations are formed that would never have happened naturally.

In the genetic engineering process, chemical markers are used to isolate the gene that manifests a favorable trait (it could be from an insect, an animal, or a plant); enzymes are used to clip out those genes and paste them into genomes of other organisms. Unlike traditional hybrids, GMO plants are usually fertile. Those that aren’t, typically have reproduction restriction as part of their genetic refurbishment package. These so- called Terminator varieties serve two needs: to control the intellectual property that the genetic material contained within the seed represents, and to restrict the unintentional propagation of the crop.

Developments in using genetically modified material for pharmaceutical research have ensured that this technology will have a place in further research. But as to the continued introduction of genetically modified foods in the marketplace—it is up to us, the consumer, to define that role.

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