Genetic Engineering is Very Different Than Traditional Breeding

The United States National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have established a committee to study the “economic, agronomic, health, safety, or other impacts of genetically engineered (GE) crops and food.” The committee’s results may be used to reassess the way GE crops, animals and foods are regulated in the U.S. and, hopefully, to improve that loophole-filled “regulatory” process. (For more information on the committee’s purpose and history, or for submitting comments, please see the committee’s website.)

Now, while this national review is taking place, is a good time to review the differences between genetic engineering and traditional breeding. The following lists serve to contrast the biological processes that underlie these technologies.

Traditional Breeding (i.e. its biological basis: sexual reproduction):

  • Evolved over eons (along with “checkpoint” mechanisms to eliminate mistakes)
  • Occurs between closely related organisms
  • Genetic exchange occurs in reproductive cells,
  • and occurs between related chromosomes,
  • through homologous recombination
  • Amount of DNA and spacing between genes remain the same


(Traditional) Genetic Engineering (particularly of crop plants):

  • Is human-made, recently (and subject to human and other errors)
  • Involves any gene from any organism (alive or dead) or synthesized in a lab
  • Occurs in somatic cells
  • Insertion into chromosomes occurs “randomly”
  • Causes insertional mutation of recipient’s genes at rates of 27-63%
  • Gene spacing and amount of genomic DNA are altered
  • Involves “selectable marker” genes (e.g. kanamycin-resistance gene)

And because genetically engineered cells–in and of themselves–are of no use to agriculture, they must then be coaxed into becoming whole, fertile plants through another biological process called regeneration. And another form of mutation, called somaclonal variation, can occur during the regeneration process.

And, finally–to be of real use to agriculture–a genetically engineered, regenerated, fertile plant must be traditionally bred into a commercially viable crop variety.

To sum, there are multiple biologically relevant differences between the processes of traditional breeding and genetic engineering of crop plants; and the “process” of genetic engineering actually comprises multiple, different processes.

Therefore, genetic engineering is very different than traditional breeding. And, until proven otherwise, it should be assumed that the risks associated with these technologies must be different as well.

As a scientist trained in biology and genetics, I see no way other way to look at it.

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14 Responses to Genetic Engineering is Very Different Than Traditional Breeding

  1. Sally Fox says:

    Thank you for providing such a clear picture for those who are not in the field.

  2. Mr. Eli Schaelie says:

    Hi Belinda,

    I’ve been following your blog recently. I appreciate your cautious and evidence based approach to critically analyzing biotechnology’s risks and benefits. It’s tough to get good quality AND unbiased information from either side of fence on this GMO debate. I’m not a trained scientist, so I have trouble understanding some of information that gets presented as proof for or against genetically modified organisms. Anyway, I want to thank you for taking the time to shine a light on the warts of biotech. Your blog is a breath of fresh air in comparison to the majority of websites that are skeptical of implementing biotechnology.

    Thank you,
    Mr. Eli Schaelie

  3. This presentation is clear and some people will understand why people as me spend so much time to oppose GMOs.
    Thank you, it will be helpful to my followers on Stark-Naked-Health.

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  5. Reblogged this on Ban GMOs Now Blog and commented:
    This is another great myth still being told — even by the so-called experts who testified in front of Congress during the last year and a half or so in support of the Dark Act.

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  13. Astrid Kamp says:

    If you listen to Monsanto, DuPont, and even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), genetic engineering is merely an extension of traditional plant breeding. These companies and regulators say it is the same thing that farmers and plant breeders have been doing for generations, and thus FDA does not require any tests for these crops. But traditional plant breeders have never crossed wheat with chickens or rice with human genes. Genetic engineering permits scientists to manipulate genetic materials in ways that were once inconceivable. But the technology relies on methods that result in haphazard insertion of genetic elements into a plant’s genetic code. This in turn may lead to disruption of complex gene interactions and unintended, potentially catastrophic results. It is a technology that has the power to transform food and the food supply in ways not possible with traditional breeding. Genetic engineering is very different, very powerful, and worth a great deal of caution.

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