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1 Introduction me outcome of the best science is unpredictable. But scientific research at times yields a unifying idea or theory--a key that revolutionizes the understanding of a specific area of science and opens the way to new discoveries and practical applications. This has just happened in biology with molecular genetics. The development of genetic theory, the growing understanding of the DNA molecule, and the expanding capabilities in cell and tissue culture present scientists with a fresh starting point for progress toward unpredictable but potentially great rewards. Just as the hand lens and its progressive refinement to the electron microscope allowed the visualization of the invisible, the tools of molecular genetics and tissue culture now allow the isolation and manipulation of invisible hereditary determinants. With these tools biology is evolving beyond the realm of the descriptive. What scientists have come to understand thus far about plants and animals is impressive. This basic knowledge has been swiftly carried forward by application. The result is an overall increase in U.S. agricultural productivity of 240 percent in the past 50 years.1 This increase is characterized by dairy cows that have more than doubled milk production per cow since 1950 and by grain production that helps to feed the growing world population. ~ What scientists will now be able to accomplish through the use of molecular genetic techniques is awesome. 1U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. 1983. Agricultural Research Service Program Plan: 6-Year Implementation Plan, 1984-1990. Miscella- neous publication number 1429. Washington, O.C. 9

OCR for page 9
10 Using these techniques of the new biology, scientists possess the ability to visualize the gene--to isolate, clone, and study the structure of a single gene and study its relationships to the processes of living things. me molecular genetic and recombinant DNA techniques are opportunities to be seized. m ey are tools, not an end in themselves. They can be employed to discover additional basic information about genes and the protein products that trigger a response to disease, regulate growth and development, or govern communication between cells and between organs. More broadly, these techniques offer opportunities to explore basic questions in genet- ics, biochemistry, physiology, immunology, and neuro- biology in innovative ways and from new perspectives. This report points to the great potential of molecular genetic techniques and suggests how they might be coupled with other current methods to yield new insights into studies of food animals, crop plants, and plant pathogens and insect pests. It emphasizes the usefulness of these techniques--as tools--in studying important biological questions. To be slow in acknowledging and employing the power of these tools would be to delay the progress of U.S. agriculture. In addition to discussions and recommendations on the combined techniques that will benefit studies on animals, crop plants, and plant pathogens-and insect pests, the report presents an outline of those most important conditions that can collectively provide the appropriate environment for this research. These conditions include the availability of funds, quality researchers, suitable facilities, and equipment, and, particularly, the presence of an attitude that encourages and supports scientific research of the highest caliber. At times, individuals and institutions must try to predict the direction of scientific research to meet the pressing needs of program planning, funding, and organi- zation. There is some danger in prediction. The imple- mentation of a rigid program structure can lead re- searchers toward attempts to fulfill an inaccurate pre- diction rather than encourage them to follow the path of the important unanswered question. This report does not predict outcomes. It identifies areas of research that the committee believes hold the greatest promise for increased understanding of the biology of animals, plants, and pests and increased agricultural efficiency and productivity for the United States.