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Goldberg's Variations
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Summer 1999
Goldberg's Variations
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A major barrier to farmers' efforts to increase the yield in seed-bearing crops such as corn, wheat and rice was that each flower contains both the male and female sex organs, and the plants' ability to reproduce themselves results in massive amounts of inbred crops. Hybrid versions of these crops, on the other hand, are bigger, healthier and yield more seeds. So to create a "super race" of corn, farmers have manually castrated the male organs in one crop line, crossbred these male-sterile plants with another line and then harvested the hybrid seeds. The process, while worth doing, was expensive. It was also impossible in plants such as rice and canola, in which the male organ is roughly the size of a pinhead.

Goldberg and scientists at Plant Genetic Systems seized on the UCLA researcher's discovery to develop a method to genetically engineer male-sterile plants - work that landed them on the cover of the prestigious journal Nature. Next, they designed a way to genetically restore the plants - fertility after the initial crossbreeding. These applications facilitated the production of hybrid canola seeds, increasing yields by 15 percent. Now, the hybridization system is being applied to other crops, with similar results.

"This technology was always like the Holy Grail," says Goldberg. "We knew that if we could do this, it would be incredible." Goldberg estimates that one-third of agricultural crops are now being genetically engineered; within a decade, that figure will approach 100 percent, with major implications for the world's food supply.

But why stop there? In 1997 Goldberg cofounded Ceres Inc., a gene-discovery company aiming to become the foremost independent provider of commercially important plant genes and traits to the seed, food, fiber, agrochemical and chemical industries. In April, the University of California and Ceres announced a partnership to create the Seed Institute, a consortium of university laboratories dedicated to identifying the genes necessary to make a seed from scratch. Goldberg says that mission should be accomplished within five to 10 years. "Think about it," Goldberg says. "We'll be able to make more seeds, bigger seeds, better seeds. And if we could get these engineered crops to reproduce themselves, you could buy the super seeds and the crop would perpetuate itself."

But while Goldberg's advancements in biotechnology may help feed the world one day, he insists that his most satisfying moments are still in the classroom.

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