Progress in science and technology seems to come in fits and starts. At least that's how it appears if you look at a timeline of major developments, dating back to the days of Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson. History books that highlight big breakthroughs tend to show a big shift in how things are done.
An announcement last week by Dow AgroSciences in Indianapolis could have such an effect when historians look back at the history of biotech in agriculture. Dave Nanda, a long-time plant breeder and now president of Bird Hybrids, Tiffin, Ohio, believes that this indeed is the genuine article- a true breakthrough.
The actual details of what Dow AgroSciences and its scientists and associates have accomplished is difficult to put into words. In layman's terms, they've figured out how to put a gene into the exact spot they want it to be when doing biotech work. Until now finding the right event that produced the resistance or tolerance one wanted involved painstaking, random insertion of genes and tons of screening until researchers could sift down to the best combination. Then it would be called an event, and announced to the world as a new trait, such as Bt cornborer corn.
"This breakthrough has the potential to shorten time to market for new traits significantly," Nanda says. "What it could do if it proves out as they indicate it should is eliminated the need for breeders and researchers to sort through thousands of plants looking for the one plant where the gene positioned itself in the right spot in the genetic code."
This breakthrough became doable once other researchers uncovered the genetic code of corn. That coupled with the new zinc finger technology allowing scientists to put a gene exactly where they want it means that they now have the capability to put genes where they believe they will function the best right off the bat, without months if not years of trial and error looking for the very best combination.
Dow AgroSciences spokespersons say this technology open sup all kinds of possibilities, not just in corn but in many crops. And it could be used to introduce a wide range of traits, from herbicide tolerance to nutritional improvements and much more.
So how will this breakthrough fit on the timeline of agricultural history? It's too early to say, of course. But if it allows breeders and scientists to do what many believe it will do, this could be a stop along the timeline that will be remembered as a great achievement.
What wont show in history books is that just like the telephone, incandescent light bulb, car and early tractor, this breakthrough didn't happen overnight. Dow AgroSicneces began working with a smaller company in California several years ago. They had a promising technology that was unproven- zinc fingering technology. We noted the agreement between Dow AgroScineces and this small company at the time. But like so many other transactions, it was just another piece in a giant puzzle of progress. It is already forgotten except by those who did it. What will be remembered is what it led to, a big breakthrough in how biotech researchers can ply their trade.