Introduction: Agricultural Biotechnology
Although the domestication and breeding of plants and animals to increase their utility to humans began about 8,000 years ago, the use of genetic technology for this purpose dates back only a few decades. Advances in biotechnology have led to the development of “transgenic” plants and animals incorporating snippets of DNA from other organisms that endow them with new traits, such as resistance to infectious diseases or the ability to produce human proteins of medicinal value. Because the foreign genes are inserted into the genetic material of single-cell embryos, all the cells of the adult organism contain the desired trait, which is passed on to future generations. A plant or animal incorporating one or more transgenes is termed a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO).
Genetic engineering has created new varieties of food crops, such as pest-resistant corn, as well as food animals with improved nutritional value and other useful characteristics. Despite these benefits, critics of genetically modified plants and animals have raised safety, security, and ethical concerns. This educational module describes some recent advances in agricultural biotechnology and assesses their benefits and risks.