The fast-track technology, called marker-assisted selection (MAS), or molecular breeding, takes advantage of rapid improvements in genetic sequencing, but avoids all the regulatory and political baggage of genetic engineering. Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit advocacy group, calls it “a perfectly acceptable tool. I don’t see any food safety issue. It can be a very useful technique if it’s used by breeders who are working in the public interest.”
Molecular breeding isn’t genetic engineering, a technology that has long alarmed critics on two counts. Its methods seem outlandish – taking genes from spiders and putting them in goats, or borrowing insect resistance from soil bacteria and transferring it into corn – and it has also seemed to benefit a handful of agribusiness giants armed with patents, at the expense of public interest.
By contrast, molecular breeding is merely a much faster and more efficient way of doing what nature and farmers have always done, by natural selection and artificial selection respectively: It takes existing genes that happen to be advantageous in a given situation and increases their frequency in a population.
In the past, farmers and breeders did it by walking around their fields and looking at individual plants or animals that seemed to have desirable traits, like greater productivity, or resistance to a particular disease. Then they went to work cross-breeding to see if they could tease out that trait and get it to appear reliably in subsequent generations. It could take decades, and success at breeding in one trait often meant bringing along some deleterious fellow traveler, or inadvertently breeding out some other essential trait.
Molecular breeding enables growers to get the improvements they want far more precisely, by zeroing in on the genes responsible for a given trait. If genetic engineering is a tool for “bludgeoning the genome,” as Cornell University researcher Susan McCouch puts it, what molecular breeding does instead is to “open a window” into how the genome works, enabling researchers to collaborate with it.