Dr Robert Goodman On Advances In Genomics
As A Superior Alternative To Transgenics
"'Maybe in five to eight years we'll
look back on this argument over transgenics and say, 'How arcane,' ' said Dr. Goodman, who
once headed research at Calgene, the company that
marketed the first genetically modified crop, a tomato. 'Not because it became unpopular but simply because it got bypassed by
the advances made by breeding powered by genomics.'"
Dr Robert Goodman - Professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin
Gene Research Finds New Use in Agricultural Breeding
New York Times, 6 March 2001
portends the next revolution in agriculture'
UW Press Release
Dr. Robert Goodman
University of Wisconsin-Madison, February 18, 2001 SAN FRANCISCO - Depending on your point of view, the great promise or peril of modern agriculture has germinated on millions of acres of North American cropland as the genetically modified organism -- or GMO -- has taken center stage.
But as science begins to accumulate and explore plant and animal genomes - the entire set of genetic instructions for a particular organism - a new revolution is in the offing and, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison biologist Robert Goodman, promises a long-lasting and favorable impact on agriculture worldwide.
Addressing scientists here today, Feb. 18, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Goodman forecasts a world of change as scientists use the maps of the genomes of key plants and animals, giving them unprecedented access to the genetic instructions that govern life. The new knowledge, he says, could significantly enhance the traditional and far-less controversial practices of crop and livestock improvement through breeding.
"From a scientific perspective, the public argument about genetically-modified organisms, I think, will soon be a thing of the past," Goodman says. "The science has moved on and we're now in the genomics era."
Instead of slipping one or two genes in or out of an organism to confer or promote a desirable trait in a plant or animal, as is the case in GMO technology, the advent of genomics portends an even more powerful tool as scientists can now rapidly comb the thousands of genes in a genome to see which genes are at work.
"The key is you can detect function." says Goodman. "You can see genes at work and you can focus on lots of genes all at once. This is what breeders have done for more than a century, but with new knowledge and modern tools of the trade, breeders can make more rapid progress on many more traits than in the past."
The potential of genomics to do good, especially in developing countries, is enormous, Goodman argues. And he expresses hope that the polarizing issues and mistakes that have dogged GMO technology can be avoided.
"Genomics adds centrally and substantially to the toolbox of the plant breeder," says Goodman, a UW-Madison professor of plant pathology and a former executive vice president for research and development at Calgene, a pioneering crop biotechnology company.
Critically, the technology can be a path to world food security and aid in the development of industries and institutions in countries that will permit them to cope with rapidly growing populations and dwindling resources, Goodman says.
"Researchers in public institutions in developing countries need this technology," he argues, "and, more to the point, they themselves can use it - if arrangements are put in place to make useful genomic sequences and technologies generally available." Goodman serves as an advisor to the McKnight Foundation, an organization that promotes scientific advancement for crop improvement in many of the world's less developed countries.
He cited the fact that the rice genome, now completely mapped, has the potential to spark significant increases in production and begin to eliminate some of the human health and environmental problems associated with industrial agriculture. For example, by building resistance to insect pests into crops, scientists may help curb cavalier use of chemical pesticides that now take a huge environmental and human health toll in the developing world.
The power of genomics, explains Goodman, lies in the fact that nature has been parsimonious in its use of genes. For example, rice, a member of the grass family, has a genome with few fundamental genetic differences from other grasses such as corn, wheat, and tef, a grain on which millions of people in Africa depend. The genome for A. rabidopsis, a common laboratory workhorse for plant scientists, is now in hand and provides a framework for using genomics in many crops such as legumes, vegetables and fruits.
The ability now to employ genomic technology to comb these genetic instructions and focus on new combinations of genes based on their functions and interactions means that the pace of development of new plant cultivars, many of them not engineered in the way GMOs are created, may accelerate dramatically.
Goodman says it is essential to get the technology into the hands of scientists in developing nations because they will have the best opportunities to tailor the technology to local agricultural conditions, crops, crop improvement priorities and traditions.
Although an advocate of employing genomic technology, Goodman parts company with many in industry by advocating labeling of engineered products and greater public dialogue and education. There is also great danger, he warns, in a potential concentration of power by having the technology held by just a few transnational companies.
"The controversy is as much about the economics of the system as it is about the technology or its safety," he says. "The industrialized model of agriculture that we depend on won't work very well in the world at large where nearly half of the population is engaged in food production. We need new models, but we can't shut the door on a technology that has tremendous potential to improve the lives of so many."
"As the controversy surrounding
genetically modified foods intensifies, scientists are trying to use the rapidly growing
knowledge about genes to enhance conventional breeding of crops and livestock rather than
implant genes from one species into another..... a number of companies are turning to the
approach because it avoids the regulatory reviews required of genetically modified foods
and is not expected to stir resistance from consumers. The approach is called marker-assisted
breeding because it uses genetic markers to
guide the process. 'Marker-assisted selection is the first choice if we can solve the
problem,' said Wally Beversdorf, head of plant science and agribusiness for Syngenta,
which was formed by the merger of the agricultural businesses of Novartis and AstraZeneca.
Some newly formed companies are deliberately steering clear of genetic engineering.
AniGenics, a start- up in Concord, Mass., aims to identify genes associated with higher
milk production, more tender meat and other desirable traits of cattle and other
livestock. But that knowledge would be used to guide conventional breeding, not to create
genetically altered herds. 'It may or may not be faster biologically,' said Steven M.
Niemi, the president. 'It's certainly faster politically.' .... scientists say that many
important traits bigger fruit, higher yield,
disease and pest resistance can often be
found within the crop species itself..... The advantage of this technique is that the
markers can be used even if the breeders have not identified the gene. Genetic engineering
can be done only if the gene is known and isolated. It is also possible to use markers to
follow numerous traits through the breeding process. Genetic engineering is at present
limited to transferring only one or a few genes. Yet many traits, like the yield of a
crop, are governed by multiple genes.... One of the biggest opportunities presented by
marker-assisted selection is to improve the harnessing of wild relatives of crops. Human
beings domesticated plants by selecting for obvious traits, like bigger fruit. But over
time, the genetic variation in commercial crops has become limited, so when breeders cross
these crops, the possible outcomes are also limited. 'We've left behind in this process a
huge reservoir of natural variation,' said Steven D. Tanksley, professor of plant breeding
and plant biology at Cornell. All the commercially grown tomatoes in the world, from the
tiniest cherry tomato to the beefiest beefsteak, have less genetic variation than the wild
tomatoes in a single valley in Peru, he said.... even small, green tomatoes can contain
some genes for redness and large fruit. The marker studies allow these genes to be
found.... Robert Goodman, a professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin,
said there was still a risk that marker-assisted breeding could run into the same
opposition as transgenic crops because people might fail to make any distinction. But if
that does not happen, he said, the breeding approach could
provide a way out of the contentious debate. 'Maybe
in five to eight years we'll look back on this argument over transgenics and say, 'How
arcane,' ' said Dr. Goodman, who once headed research at Calgene, the company that marketed the first genetically modified crop, a
tomato. 'Not because it became unpopular but simply
because it got bypassed by the advances made by breeding powered by genomics.'"
Gene Research Finds New Use in Agricultural Breeding
New York Times, 6 March 2001
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