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Harnessing the Power of Nature: How Agrobacterium Has Advanced Food and Agriculture Innovation

February 26, 2018
Editor’s Note: As part of BIO’s 25th Anniversary celebration we will be spotlighting biotechnology innovations that have made a major impact over the past 25 years. This “Innovation Series” will publish on the 25th of every month throughout 2018. In the second installment we spotlight food and agriculture. 

On any given day, you can walk into any American grocery store and the produce section is overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables. Similarly, shelf items like soybean and canola oil, cornstarch and sugar are never hard to come by. It’s hard to envision a time – outside a natural disaster – when these foods are not readily available.

These advances are the result of hardworking men and women across rural America who utilize decades of agriculture innovation to ensure that American consumers have healthy food for themselves and their families. And yet the battle to ensure food security for hundreds of millions of people in our world is far from won. So, how do we meet our future needs for food, fuel and fiber?

Already, biotechnology has dramatically improved the way in which we grow food.  Global acreage of biotech crops increased 110-fold over the past two decades (from 4.2 million acres in 1996 to 4.58 billion acres in 2016) making it the fastest adopted crop technology in modern history.

The benefits provided by biotechnology have helped 18 million farmers increase crop productivity, conserve biodiversity, reduce chemical inputs, CO2 emissions, soil erosion and water use while providing societal gains and billions of meals – especially in the developing world.

What many don’t know, however, is that these advancements would not be possible without the discovery, and subsequent harnessing, of a soil microbe called Agrobacterium. Commonly found in nature, this microbe has the ability to move some of its genetic material into the roots – and into the DNA – of plants. As a result, the plant takes on the characteristics of the gene that has been transferred. This process has been occurring naturally in the environment since before man was in caves.

Fast forward to the late 1970s when scientist Mary-Dell Chilton, and a handful of others, began researching Agrobacterium, hypothesizing that the microbe could serve as a vehicle to insert desirable genes into plants. Essentially, the scientists believed that by removing some of the microbe’s genetic material that they didn’t want and putting in genetic material that they were interested in, they could effectively modify the plant as they wish. And unlike older methods for altering crops, such as traditional plant breeding, improvements made using Agrobacterium carried the promise of being faster, direct and more precise. A few years later, Chilton and her team affirmed this hypothesis when they successfully developed the first transgenic plant using this exciting new technique.

Not long after this discovery, scientists began experimenting further, modifying crops in ways that were beneficial to farmers, consumers and/or the environment. For example, scientists modified corn to contain proteins that made the crop resistant to caterpillars, much like the proteins sprayed on organic crops. Now known as B.t. corn, this modification allowed farmers to increase crop yields and dramatically lower their use of chemical insecticides.

Other crops have been modified to use less resources like water, which helps farmers cope with climate change. Additionally, some crops have been modified to carry extra nutrients like Vitamin A, which could have global impact on developing regions whose populations are malnourished.

Thanks to the discovery of Agrobacterium, there are 10 crops available today that have been improved through gene modification: corn, squash, cotton, soybean, papaya, alfalfa, sugar beets, canola, apple and the potato. Moreover, many of these crops are found in essential food items, such as canned vegetables, oils, sugars and soy-based milks and proteins.

In 2013, Chilton (Syngenta) along with two other scientists, Robert Fraley (Monsanto) and Marc Van Montagu (Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach at Ghent University in Belgium), received the World Food Prize for their work in discovering the capabilities of Agrobacterium. The award recognizes individuals who have improved the quantity and availability of food throughout the world.

At the award ceremony, then-Secretary of State John Kerry underscored the significance of the innovation, stating “we save money and we save the environment and we save lives. It is a virtuous cycle. And through innovation, we believe we can help alleviate the level of hunger and malnutrition today, but more than that, we can, hopefully, live up to our responsibilities for the future.”

As evidence by the crops on the market today, the exploitation of Agrobacterium has already had immeasurable impacts for farmers, consumers and the environment. And as Kerry alluded to in his address, biotechnology will continue to improve the way we grow food – and other necessary crops – for future generations.