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What Are Transgenic Plants?

A transgenic crop plant contains a gene or genes which have been artificially inserted instead of the plant acquiring them through pollination. The inserted gene sequence (known as the transgene) may come from another unrelated plant, or from a completely different species: transgenic Bt corn, for example, which produces its own insecticide, contains a gene from a bacterium. Plants containing transgenes are often called genetically modified or GM crops, although in reality all crops have been genetically modified from their original wild state by domestication, selection and controlled breeding over long periods of time. On this web site we will use the term transgenic to describe a crop plant which has transgenes inserted.

Image:Results of insect infestation on Bt (right) and non-Bt (left) cotton bolls. Source: USDA

Why Make Transgenic Crop Plants?

A plant breeder tries to assemble a combination of genes in a crop plant which will make it as useful and productive as possible. Depending on where and for what purpose the plant is grown, desirable genes may provide features such as higher yield or improved quality, pest or disease resistance, or tolerance to heat, cold and drought. Combining the best genes in one plant is a long and difficult process, especially as traditional plant breeding has been limited to artificially crossing plants within the same species or with closely related species to bring different genes together. For example, a gene for protein in soybean could not be transferred to a completely different crop such as corn using traditional techniques. Transgenic technology enables plant breeders to bring together in one plant useful genes from a wide range of living sources, not just from within the crop species or from closely related plants. This technology provides the means for identifying and isolating genes controlling specific characteristics in one kind of organism, and for moving copies of those genes into another quite different organism, which will then also have those characteristics. This powerful tool enables plant breeders to do what they have always done - generate more useful and productive crop varieties containing new combinations of genes - but it expands the possibilities beyond the limitations imposed by traditional cross-pollination and selection techniques.

Image: A plant breeder cross-pollinating corn plants.

Page last updated : March 11, 2004

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