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Genetic engineering

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Genetic engineering refers to implanting DNA from one species into the DNA of another and subsequently producing a viable organism with the recombinant DNA. It is a controversial technique that has inspired both passionate advocates and passionate opponents.


Agrobacterium Research

The roots of genetic engineering occurred in the 1970s, with research by three separate teams on the bacteria, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which "was able to splice several of its own genes into plant cells, causing them to grow tumors on the plant."[1] The three teams researching Agrobacterium were Marc van Montagu and Jeff Schell at the Free University of Ghent; Rob Schilperoot at University of Leiden in the Netherlands; and Mary-Dell Chilton, Eugene Nestor, and Milton Gordon at University of Washington in Seattle. Researchers realized that if they could get Agrobacterium to transfer genes of their own choosing into a plant and subsequently grow an entire plant from the cells that now had those genes, they could achieve genetic engineering. Meanwhile, Monsanto's Earnest Jaworski was acquainted with several of these researchers and was watching the research with interest.

Chilton ultimately left University of Washington, landing at Washington University in St. Louis, in Monsanto's backyard. At Washington University, she worked together with Michael Bevan, who was then a post-doc. Jaworski hired Chilton as a Monsanto consultant, funding her work and having access to her research. The team of Van Montagu and Schill were also Monsanto consultants.

In 1980 and 1981, Jaworski convinced Monsanto's Vice President for Research to pursue genetic engineering, and subsequently hired the team of Robert B. Horsch, Stephen G. Rogers, and Robert T. Fraley.

"The genetic engineering of plants rests on three scientific pillars. First, there is the manipulation of DNA, those impossibly long, impossibly tiny chemical strands, in order to snip out genes that might be useful. Second, there's the matter of transporting those genes into plant cells. Third comes tissue culture, the art of regenerating whole plants from those genetically transformed cells."[2]

Rogers performed the first skill; Fraley, the second; and Horsch was an expert in tissue culture.[3]

1983: The First Genetic Engineering

In 1983, Chilton, Van Montagu and Schill, and Monsanto's team were all on the brink of successfully creating a transgenic plant using Agrobacterium. Monsanto relied heavily on research and "specific snippets of valuable DNA" from its consultants. "Robb Fraley and Steve Rogers became regular visitors at the Chilton lab."[4] In 1982, Monsanto hired lawyer Patrick Kelly to pursue patents of genetic engineering. Simultaneously, Chilton worked with Washington University's patent lawyer to patent her work - which was strikingly similar to Monsanto's since Monsanto had taken so much from her. Monsanto's patent applications arrived at the U.S. Patent Office on January 17, 1983. Schell's application arrived the next day. Chilton had also sent in an application. The Patent Office declared an "interference," leaving the rightful owner of the patent unresolved. However, Schell succeeded in getting a European patent for genetic engineering.

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  1. Daniel Charles, Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food, Praeger, 2001, p. 3.
  2. Daniel Charles, Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food, Praeger, 2001, p. 12-13.
  3. Daniel Charles, Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food, Praeger, 2001, p. 13-14.
  4. Daniel Charles, Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food, Praeger, 2001, p. 18.

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