The Green Phoenix: A History of Genetically Modified Plants

By Paul F. Lurquin | Go to book overview

Introduction

Since the discovery of the molecular nature of genetic material in 1944, the confirmation in 1952 that it is indeed DNA, and the discovery of the double helix in 1953, geneticists have been fascinated with the idea of using pure DNA to modify the genetic characteristics of organisms. Few, however, believed that this goal could ever be achieved outside the realm of a few bacterial genera, and relegated the concept of DNA-mediated genetic transformation to science fiction. Not until the late 1970s were eukaryotic cells, fungal and mammalian, shown to incorporate pure DNA fed to them, and to express the genes present in it. Twenty years later, the phenomenon of transgenesis, as DNA transformation is now known, seems routine to many. What is controversial today is the use of genetically engineered plants and animals, not whether they can be produced. Yet, not so long ago, starting in the late 1960s, this is exactly where the question was: Would it one day be possible to generate plants harboring totally foreign genes and expressing them?

Transgenic plants have been a reality since 1983. To the casual and innocent observer, it may seem that this branch of science developed just like any other, slowly but smoothly at first, and then exponentially. The former is definitely not true. The early attempts at transgenesis in plants were chaotic, too fast, and yielded irreproducible results for a period of at least 10 years. In the end, the scientific process did win, however. Current textbooks do not and perhaps should not get into any of the raging controversies that surrounded early claims of plant genetic transformation. However, simply ignoring this period of history does not do justice to the scientific process and does not show to young researchers that interpretations gone terribly wrong still have a heuristic value for the stimulating effects they have on scientific thought. Some of the debates that took place in the mid seventies were Homeric, frustrating, and exhilarating, all at the

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