Interview : Simon Barber - Biotechnologist
1. How do you clone a plant?
Simon : Well, this depends on what the plant is. There are all sorts of plants we have in daily use that are clones - examples are tulips from bulbs, and potatoes from tubers (these are really swollen underground stems of the potato plant). What is interesting about these is that they clone themselves - biologists call this vegetative reproduction. In fact we don't plant true seeds of these, we plant a vegetative part that shares the same genetic code as the plant it was derived from. What is it about cloning that is interesting? Well the thing about cloning is that all the individuals share the same genetic code, the same genes. Most plants don't clone themselves so we have developed ways to get lots of plants with the same genes, simply because we like them or find them useful. A simple method of cloning is to cut a branch from a plant we like and graft it onto another plant. This is what we do with roses - we have a wonderful rose, like the one called Peace, which is a very popular (and fairly old) American variety. It was developed by crossing two parent roses. So - how do we get lots of Peace roses from the one cross we like - we cut pieces off and graft them onto a rootstock. Orchids are another plant that are cloned - simply because it takes so long to get them to flower, set seed and for the seed to grow into plants that flower - AND also because if we manage to breed a really fabulous orchid we want to get lots of identical plants. Here though it is a little more difficult and orchid growers were amongst the first to develop very clever modern cloning methods. At the growing tip of plants are very special cells that are constantly dividing. They are called meristem cells. What we can do is take this small bunch of meristem cells and if we separate them into many bunches of cells, put them into a nice liquid and provide the correct foods and hormones, we can get the cells to grow into tiny plantlets. These are then carefully put onto special plates of food and eventually turn into large plants. They all have the same DNA. Even more recently we can get single cells to grow into plants. So - here we have a method of cloning.
2. Does creating a plant that is genetically modified involve cloning?
Simon :The answer here is yes and no. A genetically modified plant has had a piece of DNA put together (usually from different organisms) and this is inserted into small pieces of a plant - often small pieces of very young leaves. These then go through a very similar process of tissue culture as described above for cloning to get these to grow into plantlets and then plants. If we have a "transformed" plant that is very good, we might want to clone it to get more, though we often use it as a parent in conventional plant crossing.
3. Why is cloning a plant so difficult?
Simon : Well in fact, some are very easy - think of cutting out the eyes of a potato and then growing each one into a plant - this is cloning. Cloning a plant from single cells though is quite difficult and requires the correct medium of foods and hormones to get the cells to divide and differentiate into the right types of cell to make a plantlet and then a plant.
4. Why has there been a boycott of GMO food?
Simon : What are the issues involved that explain people's concerns? THIS is a difficult one. First of all genetically modified organisms are different because they have had a specially "engineered" gene put into them, usually a gene that is not found amongst all the thousands of genes that are available in a population of a plant. This of roses again - there are all sorts of colours that we can cross together to get all sorts of different and varied colours. These are all part of the "gene pool" of the rose species. BUT - have you ever seen a really blue rose - NO. There is no gene in the rose plant gene pool that gives a true blue. Maybe we could find the gene bluebells that makes them blue and transfer it to a rose using genetic modification. In fact the sort of genes that are usually transferred are those giving disease and insect resistances, and sometimes tolerance to a weed killer (herbicide) that the plant is not usually tolerant of. This sort of work started 20 years ago and right at the beginning scientists and governments were keen to make sure that this new technology was safe. They all worked collectively together (that was what I was doing at the OECD in Paris where they started working on safety in 1982) to work out the sort of tests and information needed about transgenic plants to ensure they are as safe in the environment as other plants, and that food derived from them is as safe as other foods. The USA was one of the first to have a regulatory system in place and working and to approve plants for agriculture. Even though this is a new technology, the majority of the US population does not seem too concerned about it, especially when they know that the USDA, the EPA and the FDA have evaluated all new transgenic plants that are used in agriculture in the USA. In Europe it is a different story. Even though they have a similar regulatory system the public here has much less trust in it. They have had some bad experiences with Mad Cow disease, dioxins in animal feed and other things. The Green political parties and the environmental NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are all opposed to this technology, and the organic growers are too. This latter is a pity as transgenic plants can help us all to be much more green! Anyway, there are hardly any transgenic plants grown in Europe - the supermarkets don't think Europeans will buy them, so they won't put them on their shelves. As you know the US is different. This leads to #5.
5. How prevalent is GMO food in the food chain?
Simon : Actually, there are very few GMOs in the food chain - we donąt eat whole live seeds. There is some sweet corn that is insect resistant, and in Hawaii there are transgenic papayas that are resistant to a virus that had virtually destroyed the papaya industry. Usually though the seed or potatoes or whatever is harvested from the transgenic plant (GMO) is processed into flour or oil or sugar or other food ingredients. Soybean in an interesting example; From it we get oil, protein for use in human and animal feed, and a substance called lecithin which is used in all sorts of processed foods. Corn, which produces starch, sugars and oils, is also used in many foods. Often they are present in small quantities. So what this means is that many foods have ingredients in them that might have come from transgenic plants (GMOS), though of course all these plants have been evaluated as safe by the USDA, EPA and FDA before they are commercialised. In Europe, not much food has ingredients from transgenic plants (GMOs).
6. How much money is being spent annually by your organisation for cloning related projects?
Simon : Actually I can't answer this. My organisation doesn't do any research and development as it is an industry association representing our member companies that do this. They are involved in medicine, industrial applications and agriculture. I am sure that many of them have cloning in some of their processes but I have no idea of how much.
7. What is your time frame for recuperating your investment?
Simon : This is another difficult question. Sometimes the investment is never recovered! Remember that in agriculture, first you have to get the right genes into a plant, then get the plant into a variety that is accepted by farmers because it grows well for them, AND you have to do all the necessary research to show the regulators that the new plant is safe. This process can take many years. I think the same is true when modern biotechnology is used in the pharmaceutical area. I don't have an answer for you but it could be 5 - 15 years before the thing is commercialised, and then you have to sell enough to get the money to cover all these costs.
8. What portion of investment is public and what is private?
Simon : In the agriculture area, governments have been reducing their research spending since the early 1980's. This is true of money that goes into plant breeding in public institutions. Industry has during this time become more involved. Another aspect is that often the public institutions do more basic research while the industry does the development and commercialisation of science that can be used in this way. I would guess that at the moment the majority of investment is by industry, but governments do spend a lot on basic research, e.g., the recent human genome study. I know that there have been voices raised about too much industry investment going towards products that will make them money (don't forget though that to do research and development companies have to have money). One result of this in both the agriculture and medicine areas is that perhaps we focus on developing products for the developed/rich world and not on the lesser developed/poor world, which could not afford to buy the products. Even so, I know that the agricultural biotechnology companies do have programmes to train scientists in the developing world and to help them develop products that will help them in their environments. One example is to get disease resistance into cassava, a staple food crop for many, but one that is devastated by a virus disease (just like the Hawaiian papaya was).
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