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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.
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.
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.
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
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.