Glossary of Agricultural Biotechnology Terms

Confused by biotech terminology? These terms and definitions will help readers better understand this complex – yet beneficial – science.
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Agricultural Biotechnology: A range of tools, including traditional breeding techniques, that alter living organisms, or parts of organisms, to make or modify products; improve plants or animals; or develop microorganisms for specific agricultural uses. Modern biotechnology today includes the tools of genetic engineering.

Allergen: A substance, usually a protein, that can cause an allergy or allergic reaction in the body.

Allergy: A reaction by the body's immune system after exposure to a particular substance, often a protein.

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt): A soil bacterium that produces toxins that are deadly to some pests. The ability to produce Bt toxins has been engineered into some crops. See Bt crops. Biopharming: The production of pharmaceuticals such as edible vaccines and antibodies in plants or domestic animals.

Bt crops: Crops that are genetically engineered to carry a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The bacterium produces proteins that are toxic to some pests but non-toxic to humans and other mammals. Crops containing the Bt gene are able to produce this toxin, thereby providing protection for the plant. Bt corn and Bt cotton are examples of commercially available Bt crops.

Chromosome: The self-replicating genetic structure of cells, containing genes, which determines inheritance of traits. Chemically, each chromosome is composed of proteins and a long molecule of DNA.

Clone: A genetic replica of an organism created without sexual reproduction.

Cross-pollination: Fertilization of a plant with pollen from another plant. Pollen may be transferred by wind, insects, other organisms, or humans. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid): The chemical substance from which genes are made. DNA is a long, double-stranded helical molecule made up of nucleotides which are themselves composed of sugars, phosphates, and derivatives of the four bases adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T).

The sequence order of the four bases in the DNA strands determines the genetic information contained.

Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA): A technique using antibodies for detecting specific proteins. Used to test for the presence of a particular genetically engineered organism.

Field trial: A test of a new technique or variety, including biotech-derived varieties, done outside the laboratory but with specific requirements on location, plot size, methodology, etc.

Gene: The fundamental physical and functional unit of heredity. A gene is typically a specific segment of a chromosome and encodes a specific functional product (such as a protein or RNA molecule).

Gene expression: The result of the activity of a gene or genes which influence the biochemistry and physiology of an organism and may change its outward appearance.

Gene flow: The movement of genes from one individual or population to another genetically compatible individual or population.

Gene mapping: Determining the relative physical locations of genes on a chromosome. Useful for plant and animal breeding.

Gene (DNA) sequencing: Determining the exact sequence of nucleotide bases in a strand of DNA to better understand the behavior of a gene.

Genetic engineering: Manipulation of an organism's genes by introducing, eliminating or rearranging specific genes using the methods of modern molecular biology, particularly those techniques referred to as recombinant DNA techniques.

Genetically engineered organism (GEO): An organism produced through genetic engineering.

Genetic modification: The production of heritable improvements in plants or animals for specific uses, via either genetic engineering or other more traditional methods. Some countries other than the United States use this term to refer specifically to genetic engineering.

Genetically modified organism (GMO): An organism produced through genetic modification.

Genetics: The study of the patterns of inheritance of specific traits.

Genome: All the genetic material in all the chromosomes of a particular organism.

Genomics: The mapping and sequencing of genetic material in the DNA of a particular organism as well as the use of that information to better understand what genes do, how they are controlled, how they work together, and what their physical locations are on the chromosome.

Genomic library: A collection of biomolecules made from DNA fragments of a genome that represent the genetic information of an organism that can be propagated and then systematically screened for particular properties. The DNA may be derived from the genomic DNA of an organism or from DNA copies made from messenger RNA molecules. A computer-based collection of genetic information from these biomolecules can be a "virtual genomic library."

Genotype: The genetic identity of an individual. Genotype often is evident by outward characteristics, but may also be reflected in more subtle biochemical ways not visually evident.

Herbicide-tolerant crops: Crops that have been developed to survive application(s) of particular herbicides by the incorporation of certain gene(s) either through genetic engineering or traditional breeding methods. The genes allow the herbicides to be applied to the crop to provide effective weed control without damaging the crop itself.

Hybrid: The offspring of any cross between two organisms of different genotypes.

Identity preservation: The segregation of one crop type from another at every stage from production and processing to distribution. This process is usually performed through audits and site visits and provides independent third-party verification of the segregation.

Insecticide resistance: The development or selection of heritable traits (genes) in an insect population that allow individuals expressing the trait to survive in the presence of levels of an insecticide (biological or chemical control agent) that would otherwise debilitate or kill this species of insect. The presence of such resistant insects makes the insecticide less useful for managing pest populations.

Insect-resistance management: A strategy for delaying the development of pesticide resistance by maintaining a portion of the pest population in a refuge that is free from contact with the insecticide. For Bt crops this allows the insects feeding on the Bt toxin to mate with insects not exposed to the toxin produced in the plants.

Insect-resistant crops: Plants with the ability to withstand, deter or repel insects and thereby prevent them from feeding on the plant. The traits (genes) determining resistance may be selected by plant breeders through cross-pollination with other varieties of this crop or through the introduction of novel genes such as Bt genes through genetic engineering.

Intellectual property rights: The legal protection for inventions, including new technologies or new organisms (such as new plant varieties). The owner of these rights can control their use and earn the rewards for their use. This encourages further innovation and creativity for the benefit of us all. Intellectual property rights protection includes various types of patents, trademarks, and copyrights.

Molecular biology: The study of the structure and function of proteins and nucleic acids in biological systems.

Mutation: Any heritable change in DNA structure or sequence. The identification and incorporation of useful mutations has been essential for traditional crop breeding.

Nucleotide: A subunit of DNA or RNA consisting of a nitrogenous base (adenine, guanine, thymine, or cytosine in DNA; adenine, guanine, uracil, or cytosine in RNA), a phosphate molecule, and a sugar molecule (deoxyribose in DNA and ribose in RNA). Many of nucleotides are linked to form a DNA or RNA molecule.

Organic agriculture: A concept and practice of agricultural production that focuses on production without the use of synthetic inputs and does not allow the use of transgenic organisms. USDA's National Organic Program has established a set of national standards for certified organic production which are available online.

Outcrossing: Mating between different populations or individuals of the same species that are not closely related. The term "outcrossing" can be used to describe unintended pollination by an outside source of the same crop during hybrid seed production.

Pest-resistant crops: Plants with the ability to withstand, deter or repel pests and thereby prevent them from damaging the plants. Plant pests may include insects, nematodes, fungi, viruses, bacteria, weeds, and other.

Pesticide resistance: The development or selection of heritable traits (genes) in a pest population that allow individuals expressing the trait to survive in the presence of levels of a pesticide (biological or chemical control agent) that would otherwise debilitate or kill this pest. The presence of such resistant pests makes the pesticide less useful for managing pest populations.

Phenotype: The visible and/or measurable characteristics of an organism (how it appears outwardly).

Plant breeding: The use of cross-pollination, selection, and certain other techniques involving crossing plants to produce varieties with particular desired characteristics (traits) that can be passed on to future plant generations.

Plant-incorporated protectants (PIPs): Pesticidal substances introduced into plants by genetic engineering that are produced and used by the plant to protect it from pests. The protein toxins of Bt are often used as PIPs in the formation of Bt crops.

Plant pests: Organisms that may directly or indirectly cause disease, spoilage, or damage to plants, plant parts or processed plant materials. Common examples include certain insects, mites, nematodes, fungi, molds, viruses, and bacteria.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR): A technique used to create a large number of copies of a target DNA sequence of interest. One use of PCR is in the detection of DNA sequences that indicate the presence of a particular genetically engineered organism.

Promoter: A region of DNA that regulates the level of function of other genes.

Protein: A molecule composed of one or more chains of amino acids in a specific order. Proteins are required for the structure, function, and regulation of the body's cells, tissues, and organs, and each protein has a unique function.

Recombinant DNA (rDNA): A molecule of DNA formed by joining different DNA segments using recombinant DNA technology.

Recombinant DNA technology: Procedures used to join together DNA segments in a cell-free system (e.g. in a test tube outside living cells or organisms). Under appropriate conditions, a recombinant DNA molecule can be introduced into a cell and copy itself (replicate), either as an independent entity (autonomously) or as an integral part of a cellular chromosome.

Ribonucleic Acid (RNA): A chemical substance made up of nucleotides compound of sugars, phosphates, and derivatives of the four bases adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and uracil (U). RNAs function in cells as messengers of information from DNA that are translated into protein or as molecules that have certain structural or catalytic functions in the synthesis of proteins. RNA is also the carrier of genetic information for certain viruses. RNAs may be single or double stranded.

Selectable marker: A gene, often encoding resistance to an antibiotic or an herbicide, introduced into a group of cells to allow identification of those cells that contain the gene of interest from the cells that do not. Selectable markers are used in genetic engineering to facilitate identification of cells that have incorporated another desirable trait that is not easy to identify in individual cells.

Selective breeding: Making deliberate crosses or matings of organisms so the offspring will have particular desired characteristics derived from one or both of the parents.

Traditional breeding: Modification of plants and animals through selective breeding. Practices used in traditional plant breeding may include aspects of biotechnology such as tissue culture and mutational breeding.

Transgene: A gene from one organism inserted into another organism by recombinant DNA techniques.

Transgenic organism: An organism resulting from the insertion of genetic material from another organism using recombinant DNA techniques.

Variety: A subdivision of a species for taxonomic classification also referred to as a 'cultivar.' A variety is a group of individual plants that is uniform, stable, and distinct genetically from other groups of individuals in the same species.

Vector: 1. A type of DNA element, such as a plasmid, or the genome of a bacteriophage, or virus, that is self-replicating and that can be used to transfer DNA segments into target cells. 2. An insect or other organism that provides a means of dispersal for a disease or parasite.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Note: These terms and definitions are intended for general educational purposes only. They are not intended to replace any definitions currently in use in any U.S. Government laws or regulations, nor are they legally binding on the actions of any Government agency. For specific definitions that apply to any law or regulation of any Government agency, please consult directly with that agency.

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