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Areas of Biotechnology Research

Genetically Engineered Plants

Biotechnology is becoming more important in agriculture. Genetic engineering can add many desirable characteristics to plants. For example, it can make foods more nutritious. As mentioned in the introduction, golden rice has been genetically engineered to have high levels of beta-carotene. The human body turns this beta-carotene into vitamin A.

Biotechnology can also alter the amount of herbicides and pesticides needed to successfully raise a crop. Herbicides are used on crops to kill weeds, and pesticides are sprayed on crops to kill insects. Yet these chemicals can be toxic and get into the soil and water system. They are also widely believed to cause various kinds of cancers and other illnesses in humans.

Herbicides can even be toxic enough to kill the plants they are meant to protect. Cotton is a crop that has been vulnerable to herbicides and has benefited from the bioengineering of herbicides. Roundup Ready, a variety of bioengineered cotton, contains a gene from a bacterium commonly found in the soil. It makes the plant resistant to the herbicide Roundup. Roundup kills ordinary cotton plants. But Roundup can be used on Roundup Ready cotton to kill weeds without affecting the cotton plant.

Another type of bioengineered cotton, Bt cotton, contains a gene from a different bacterium. This gene causes the plant to make a pesticide that kills bollworms and budworms. These are the most common cotton-eating pests in many areas. Since the pesticide is produced by the gene from the bacterium and is already contained in the plant, farmers don't need to spray it on their crops. The soil, water supply, and farm workers are kept safe from contact with the Bt toxin.

In the future, many other special characteristics could be introduced into plants through genetic engineering. Genetic engineering could produce plants that are larger, more resistant to cold, or require less water. If bigger, more numerous plants that grew in relatively dry areas could be produced, it could have great benefits to typically drought- and famine-stricken areas. Some scientists are also combining agricultural and human health research. They are genetically engineering plants to make vaccines and other drugs. In the future, an apple a day really could keep the doctor away.

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