ST. LOUIS — In a nondescript basement lab, jeans-clad engineers clutch blueprints, scrape stepladders across the unfinished floor and chat about the Cardinals as they tighten bolts on a new prototype device. At first glance, it could be any machine shop in the country.
But then you notice the wispy strands of soybean seedlings curling to life, their root tendrils bunched into test tubes lightly packed with soil, and you remember — this place is all about seeds.
Monsanto Co. produces 90 percent of the world's transgenic crops, using a complex marriage between ancient techniques — cross-breeding different plants to produce a desired trait — and the most modern technologies available, from genomic research to NASA-caliber mechanical engineering.
Originally a chemical company, Monsanto produced some of the world's most controversial substances — saccharine, DDT, PCBs, Agent Orange — before evolving into the biotech giant it is today. That evolution has been marked by controversy, including lawsuits against farmers, allegations of unfair trade practices, and more. The company produces the herbicide Roundup, and also seeds whose genes have been engineered to survive Roundup's active plant-killing ingredient. Now the vast majority of this country's soybeans, corn, sugar beets and canola possess those engineered genes.
For a closer look at the tools of the GE trade, check out the gallery here
Behind every single seed is at least a decade of research involving geneticists, engineers and farmers, working to produce a seed that will grow exactly as expected, and in a way nature may not have intended. Here's how it's done.
Step one: Finding a new trait
Ginny Ursin, head of technology prospecting at Monsanto, has been studying plants most of her life; at age 10, she cobbled together a makeshift greenhouse in the front yard. It was well-built enough that a city building inspector dropped by to inquire about a permit, she recalled. After obtaining her Ph.D in genetics from the University of California-Davis, she studied the biochemical pathways that allow plants to accumulate oil. She has spent more than a decade developing a new omega-3 soybean, which actually produces a precursor fatty acid that our bodies convert into a heart-healthy type of omega-3 — fish oil without the fish. Its history includes Alaskan wildflowers, a type of mold used in Indonesian cooking and years of patient cultivation.
To produce a genetically modified organism, you have to identify the trait you want the plant to have, and find out what other organisms already have it. This involves luck as much as careful searching — Monsanto first produced "Roundup Ready" glyphosate-tolerant plants using a gene from bacteria found growing near a Roundup factory. Ursin pored over science texts outlining organisms' fatty acid compositions, tested hundreds of flowers and fungi, and finally narrowed down the web of life to two fatty-acid-producing enzymes found in primrose flower and a mold called neurospora.
Concocting a transgenic soybean seed also involves testing the plants themselves to find the most worthy subjects. Monsanto invented some cutting-edge technology to help its scientists make that step more efficient.
Step two: Grabbing genes
In the past, studying the genetic code of individual seeds required planting the seed, growing the plants to a certain size, and then clipping a paper-hole-puncher through a leaf to gather a sample. But that's a time-consuming and resource-heavy process, so it's easier to study the seeds themselves, explains Kevin Deppermann, head of Monsanto's automation engineering department. This requires grinding them up, which is also inconvenient, because a ground-up seed can't be planted. To get around this, Monsanto engineers invented a special chipping device that shaves off just a tiny piece of the seed and grinds it into a powder that can be analyzed with genome-mapping technology. Meanwhile, the viable remainder of the seed is preserved for planting and cultivation.
"Now we know what genes are in the seed before it's in the ground," Deppermann said.
Deppermann boasts that he recently hired away an engineer from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and that he believes with the right tools, Monsanto will be able to meet its goal of tripling crop yields while reducing resource use by two-thirds by 2030. He says the chipper, which Monsanto patented last year, is one such tool. A blast of air separates the shavings from the rest of the seed; a bar code system ensures the two can be reconciled later. The device, about the size of a home air conditioner, can chip a seed every second. The chip is ground to a fine powder and analyzed with an automated high-throughput genotyping system, also developed in-house.
It was easy to design a chipper for soybeans, because the seeds are shaped such that they always fall a certain way. But corn kernels are all different, and you don't want to shave off the wrong part and kill the embryo. Monsanto's corn chipper uses cameras and object-recognition algorithms to determine how each seed should be aligned for proper chipping. Next-generation chippers for melons and other fruits have a camera that takes 100,000 frames per second — all to help geneticists find new traits even faster.
Step three: "Trait insertion"
Now that you've got your genes, the next step is inserting them into the plants. There are a couple ways to do this, including using "gene guns" that literally shoot pieces of DNA. A .22-caliber charge fires a metal particle coated with DNA into plant tissue. Monsanto no longer uses the technique, but it's still widely used among other biotech companies.
For omega-3 soybeans, Ursin and colleagues used a slightly more delicate process, heating soybean seedlings to place them under stress and make them susceptible to a bug called Agrobacterium tumefaciens. The organism specializes in invading plant DNA and tricking it into producing sugars and amino acids that feed the bacteria. Scientists can exploit this Trojan horse ability and insert new proteins into the plant's chromosomes. The plant recognizes this foreign encoded protein as one of its own, Ursin said.
"This is now in all the plant progenitor cells. The pollen will have that DNA in its genome, so when you have a pollination event and create new seed, that trait is advanced into the next generation," she said. And there you have it: a first-generation genetically modified plant.
It's also a game of chance — just like with breeding, you never know how the offspring will turn out. Ursin and colleagues produced large sets of modified seedlings to make sure the new genes ended up in the right spot on the genome, because if they don't, the plant could suffer myriad side effects that would make it unsuitable for sale (at a premium price) to farmers. The next step: finding the best candidates.
This is so cool! I'm inspired. I've been doing tillage work with farmers for a year, and I've just started school to get a science degree. I think I want to be involved in the next push for better crops and better yields! We are learning about the Agricultural Revolution right now in my History class. Better farming (through science and technology) has allowed the rest of us to do things other than farming (to feed ourselves). This has freed labor and brainpower to do other things. Where would the modern world be without the crop yields of today? We'd all be so busy growing food that nobody would have the time or resources to study, invent, produce, or consume anything else! Productivity and wealth would decrease drastically.
Now we just need scientists out there to find a way to power big tractors when fossil fuels aren't so abundant! We would be in a world of hurt without the tractor... The old world, that is.
Very informative, well-written story. While I am not a fan of genetically modified food - i.e., I try to avoid knowingly buying it, although I'm sure all the fresh corn I buy is GM - I want to learn more about the issue. Thanks for doing this story!
You forgot steps 7 and 8.
Step 7 - Patent. Claim you own the genes that you found in nature and use your over paid lawyers to intimidate patent officers into letting you patent these building blocks of life.
Step 8 - Sue. Any time someone is found using one of your seeds without paying for it (even if it's accidental) use the lawers metntioned in step 7 to sue the pants off of that farmer until he goes bankrupt and has to sell the farm that his family has owned for 150 years. (Over the years, Monsanto has become very good at step 8.)
(and for you internet nerds out there)
Step 9 - ???????
Step 10 - Profit!
You certainly do represent the POPULAR science out there, which conveniently omits the scientific findings suggesting that GMO foods wreak havoc on the species that consume them.
Anyone familiar with history of Monsanto knows that this company is evil incarnate, and that Lucifer himself presides over their board. If you aren't familiar with this company and all of their crimes against humanity, you can get a very quick and complete synopsis by watching this documentary on YouTube:
"The World According to Monsanto"
But since promotion of Monsanto is only a tertiary aim of this article, I should cut to the chase and share the other half of the science this article conveniently leaves out:
Theres a 10 minute video in the banner at the top of the page containing a video from Dr. Oz, where 3 people are debating the two sides of this science. This is a good place to start. Now that you have both views, you can decide for yourself if genetically modified crops are a net benefit to humanity.
Sky, this site you recommended is excellent. thanks, I've bookmarked it.
Still think Rebecca's article is great.
This was the last "industries-finance" pro article I ever read in PS and will unsubscribe now. We dont need genetic experiments on food or crop and all those lies being told to you here. This is not even science while ignoring tremendeous damages caused by genetic agriculture. Massive dead of bees is just one fact you ignore on purpose like about 1000 other facts. Montsantos is called a criminal organziation by mnay NGOs but you guys here just got amazed without moving a single finger for our natural environment! Ever thought about that this big green and blue earth still got huge reserves for healthy agriculture and that the entire mess of chem food, bad food or lack of supply is just made by a greedy finance system keeping 5% rich and 95% poor. Where got your IQ stucked? There is nothing which could (nor needing) to shortcut mother nature and produce a better product than mother nature, the only thing we got to do is treating her well and removing such gangsters like Montsantos and prayer like such article heroe over here selling greed for science for better healthier aproach. I am unsibscribing from popular science because its made stupid science instead and will run the word around the globe. This was just a number to sneaky.
"geneticists build plants with qualities evolution could never produce"
This is typical, flawed science from evolutionary philosophy, which is nothing more than insanity!
Quoting Forrest Gump: "Stupid is, as stupid does" comes to mind.
What it should read: geneticists build plants with qualities that our creator (a much higher intelligence) would've never created. And for good reason!
Oh well, we asked for it:
The 'knowledge of Good and Evil' in joint partnership with the immutable law of 'Cause and Effect'. All we can do now is hang on for the ride!
This life, is nothing more than a school.
This technology really scares me. I remember reading about genetically modified plants several years ago and thinking how great and promising it was; unfortunately, once you break the surface you realize how dangerous this is. There is a reason these genes are not expressed in the plants they are being forced into. Mold DNA is not supposed to be in edible plants.
Although genetic modification has been going on for a very long time- it has been through natural means, such as cross-pollination, etc. It does not take long to find information on the web discussing the dangers (herbicide in your intestines!).
The main danger is that no one knows what happens to someone who eats genetically modified food for a long period of time. Lab animals have found this to create infertility, but no one knows how humans will be effected.
Step 9 - ??????? (Lobby the pants off FDA, USDA officials, and once upstanding markets like Whole Foods to "coexist" with GMO products w/o labeling. Make sure the public remains in the dark by spreading "anti-science" propaganda against GMO opponents.)
Step 10 - Profit!
Roundup, Monsanto's glyphosate-based herbicide, is causing Sudden Death Syndrome (SDS), a serious plant disease, in many fields. Study after study shows that glyphosate is contributing not only to the huge increase in SDS, but also to the outbreak of numerous other diseases.
Glyphosate is the world's bestselling weed killer; it was patented by Monsanto for use in their Roundup brand, which became more popular when they introduced "Roundup Ready" crops -- genetically modified (GM) plants that can withstand applications of normally deadly Roundup.
But the herbicide doesn't destroy plants directly; instead, it creates a unique perfect storm of conditions that activates disease-causing organisms in the soil, while at the same time wiping out plant defenses against those diseases.
The Institute for Responsible Technology reports:
"By weakening plants and promoting disease, glyphosate opens the door for lots of problems in the field. According to Don [Huber, a plant pathologist], 'There are more than 40 diseases of crop plants that are reported to increase with the use of glyphosate …'
Some of the fungi promoted by glyphosate produce dangerous toxins that can end up in food and feed ... They've 'been linked to the plague epidemics' of medieval Europe, 'large-scale human toxicosis in Eastern Europe,' esophageal cancer in southern Africa and parts of China, joint diseases in Asia and southern Africa, and a blood disorder in Russia."
We are getting Labeling here in California with our initiative coming out in Janurary 2012. Please go to LabelGMOs.org to help us get your signatures. It was told buy the horses mouth Monsanto's CEO Hugh Grant, if labels have to be put on food containing GMOs it would be like putting crossbones and a skull on food....humm what does that tell you. This is all about controlling our food supply and $$$. Getting patents on food it not science it's pure EVIL, no Chemical company should own our food supply especially the one who was committed to producing such a wide array of products like DDT, Agent Orange, PCB's, and there best seller now Roundup Ready. From a company that advertised DDT was good for you and safe and later determined very unsafe, that's criminal. The only science that should be done on food is to invent better ways to grow Organically grown food and not trying to patent life. People wake up! Research what you eat and reliaze our health has declined since the introduction of GMOs in 1996 get back to basics shop at farmers markets, support local, read labels and bocott GMO foods!
Im 17 and for my senior project I want to genetically engineer a plant. I don't know what kind or for what, if anyone on here knows any information about what I should engineer please help me.
Genetically modified food, cattle, and even humans, are the wave of the future. We, as humans, are ripping giant holes in the ecosystems on the planet. The only way we'll be able to survive is by controlling the how and when our food is grown. I mention humans because of the possibility that our devastating actions will probably begin affecting humans. The way we will offset the negative ecological affects will be by modifying our own genes for resiliency.
Darwin would be shaking his head...at just how much damage humans have done and continue to do to the planet. And, don't get me wrong, I'm no tree hugger, but if you research species that are going extinct, they are disappearing at an alarming rate; this cannot be good. We need to learn to live in symbiosis with the planet.
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I agree with you to a certain extent, however, I believe, as great as science is, it lacks the full understanding of the global ramifications of modified seeds. For millions, if not billions, of years the planet has pushed forward with life...albeit...with slow, gradual variation among the species through natural selection. It's a pretty scary thought to think that genetically modified plants and animals could make their way into the wild and kill off other species, or worse, mate and create offspring that are sterile which would affect plants and animals on a global scale.
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