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Recombinant DNA technology has had a major effect on agriculture, where it is now used to create crop plants and domestic animals with valuable traits. For many years, plant pathologists had recognized that plants infected with mild strains of viruses are resistant to infection by virulent strains. Using this knowledge, geneticists have created viral resistance in plants by transferring genes for viral proteins to the plant cells. A genetically engineered squash, called Freedom II, carries genes from the watermelon mosaic virus 2 and the zucchini yellow mosaic virus that protect the squash against viral infections.

Another objective has been to genetically engineer pest resistance into plants to reduce dependence on chemical pesticides. A protein toxin from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis selectively kills the larvae of certain insect pests but is harmless to wildlife, humans, and many other insects. The toxin gene has been isolated from the bacteria, linked to active promoters, and transferred into corn, tomato, potato, and cotton plants. The gene produces the insecticidal toxin in the plants, and caterpillars that feed on the plant die.

Recombinant DNA technology has also permitted the development of herbicide resistance in plants. A major problem in agriculture is the control of weeds, which compete with crop plants for water, sunlight, and nutrients. Although herbicides are effective at killing weeds, they can also damage the crop plants. Genes that provide resistance to broad-spectrum herbicides have been transferred into tomato, soybean, cotton, oilseed rape, and other commercially important crops. When the fields containing these crops are sprayed with herbicides, the weeds are killed but the genetically engineered plants are unaffected. In 1999, more than 21 million hectares (1 hectare = 2.471 acres) of genetically engineered soybeans and 11 million hectares of genetically engineered corn was grown throughout the world.

Recombinant DNA techniques are also applied to domestic animals. For example, the gene for growth hormone was isolated from cattle and cloned in E. coli; these bacteria produce large quantities of bovine growth hormone, which is administered to dairy cattle to increase milk production. Transgenic animals are being developed to carry genes that encode pharmaceutical products. For example, a gene for human clotting factor VIII has been linked to the regulatory region of the sheep gene for p-lactoglobulin, a milk protein. The fused gene was injected in sheep embryos, creating trans-genic sheep that produce in their milk the human clotting factor, which is used to treat hemophiliacs. A similar procedure was used to transfer a gene for arantitrypsin, a protein used to treat patients with hereditary emphysema, into sheep. Female sheep bearing this gene produce as much as 15 grams of arantitrypsin in each liter of their milk, generating $100,000 worth of arantitrypsin per year for each sheep.

The genetic engineering of agricultural products is controversial. One area of concern focuses on the potential effects of releasing novel organisms produced by genetic engineering into the environment. There are many examples in which nonnative organisms released into a new environment have caused ecological disruption because they are free of predators and other natural control mechanisms. Genetic engineering normally transfers only small sequences of DNA, relative to the large genetic differences that often exist between species, but even small genetic differences may alter ecologically important traits that might affect the ecosystem.

Another area of concern is that transgenic organisms may hybridize with native organisms and transfer their genetically engineered traits. For example, herbicide resistance engineered into crop plants might be transferred to weeds, which would then be resistant to the herbicides that are now used for their control. The results of some studies have demonstrated gene transfer between engineered plants and native plants, but the extent and effect of this transfer are uncertain. Other concerns focus on health-safety issues associated with the presence of engineered products in natural foods; some critics have advocated required labeling of all genetically engineered foods that contain transgenic DNA or protein. Such labeling is required in countries of the European Union but not in the United States.

On the other hand, the use of genetically engineered crops and domestic animals has potential benefits. Genetically engineered crops that are pest resistant have the potential to reduce the use of environmentally harmful chemicals, and research findings indicate that lower amounts of pesticides are used in the United States as a result of the adoption of transgenic plants. Transgenic crops also increase yields, providing more food per acre, which reduces the amount of land that must be used for agriculture.

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Recombinant DNA technology is used to create a wide range of commercial products, including pharmaceuticals, specialized bacteria, genetically engineered crops, and transgenic domestic animals. More information about the use of recombinant DNA and biotechnology in agriculture

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