Genetic Engineering in Plants

As for conventional breeding techniques, the genetic engineering (GE) breeding and selection process is largely self-monitored and only new varieties of rDNA crops are subjected to assessment prior to commercialization. Evaluation of GE food products for other countries is described above, in the section Conventional Plant Breeding.

Genetic engineering methods are considered by some to be more precise than conventional breeding methods because only known and precisely characterized genes are transferred. In contrast, conventional breeding involves transferring thousands of unknown genes with unknown function along with the desired genes. Similarly, in mutation breeding hundreds or thousands of random mutations are induced in each mutated line.

Plant breeders take a variety of methods used to introduce desired traits into consideration during selection. The location where DNA expressing the desired traits is inserted into the host genome in rDNA technology may be immaterial—for example, if an insertion is made in an inappropriate place, the transformed plant is eliminated or selected against by the breeder, who will then select another plant with a preferable locus of insertion for continued evaluation and development as a new variety.

The number of different lines developed by breeders varies according to the crop, the desired trait, and the choice of the breeder, but is it not unusual to start with evaluations of 2,000 “sister” lines from a cross of two parents to develop just one new variety. Thus 99 percent of sister lines are eliminated over the several years of evaluation, for various reasons. These include poor expression of the desired trait, poor yield performance, increased disease susceptibility, or even a lack of visual and tactile appeal, which is a largely subjective and arbitrary designation, but an important criterion nevertheless.

Genetic engineering techniques require fewer lines or transformation events because the desired trait is known and identified early. Consequently, the evaluations—which still take several years—focus on eliminating any unstable lines or those with deleterious characteristics.

In contrast to breeders using other techniques, genetic engineering breeders typically prefer to start with a small number of plants and then select only a few. For example, the two currently approved GE plant varieties from public institutions, papaya (Gonsalves, 1998; Swain and Powell, 2001) and flax (McHughen et al., 1997), started with only about 30 sister lines.

Unintended Effects from Genetic Engineering

Unexpected and unintended effects can be seen with all methods of breeding. Traditionally breeders observe such off-types regularly; they methodologically eliminate these individuals during the evaluation process, long before prepara-



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