Video: ‘Journey of a gene’ illustrates science of genetic engineering for consumers

Credit: Jon at Stated Clearly (

With the ongoing push for labeling and transparency for genetically engineered foods, it is clear that consumers want to know now, more than ever, how their food is produced. From Vermont and Massachusetts to Oregon, “right-to-know” supporters are demanding food companies indicate if their products contain ingredients from genetically engineered crops.

As the clamor for information continues, some consumers are taking the time to learn about the science of genetic engineering. Media outlets have started developing explainers and resources to address this need. Brad Plumer, a science journalist at Vox, recently curated a thoughtful set of cards that explain briefly the debate around genetic engineering, including a card summing up how genetic engineering works.

But more often than not, the internet turns up scary images of syringes inserted into fruit that give the false impression that scientists are doctoring food in the process of genetic engineering. Below is a snapshot of the top fifteen Google image results for the search “genetically modified foods.”


Now, a new, reliable resource is available from the Plant and Soil Sciences eLibrary at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln: Journey of a Gene. The Plant and Soil Sciences eLibrary produces educational material covering multiple aspects of agriculture, from genetics to soil science to agronomic practices. Founded in 1999, the eLibrary is a collaborative project between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Journey of a Gene project is a detailed learning resource for educators, students, parents or anyone who wants to learn the science of genetic engineering. The project uses the example of a soybean and an important soybean disease, sudden death syndrome, to illustrate the process of genetically engineering soybeans. Eliminating disease is a common theme of genetic engineering: addressing problems that have few, if any, effective solutions.

The Journey of a Gene project breaks down the process of genetic engineering into four sections that mirror the four main steps in engineering soybeans resistant to sudden death syndrome: designing the gene, transformation, breeding and testing. In the videos, scientists explain individual techniques involved in genetic engineering.

In the video below, agronomy professor Madan Bhattacharyya from Iowa State University explains and demonstrates how a transgene could be assembled to help soybeans fight sudden death syndrome:

Media reports on genetically engineered crops typically cover what gene is inserted into the plant, where the gene came from and how scientists insert the gene. That process is called transformation. While the media usually stop explaining at the  transformation step, in reality, the process doesn’t stop there.

Scientists usually use a plant variety that they understand well to perform transformation, but the transformed plant isn’t the final marketed crop. Journey of a Gene explains why:

The varieties of plants that are reliable for transformation are not the ‘latest and greatest’ varieties that farmers want to grow in their fields.  In order to move the gene into these elite current varieties, breeders cross with the elite line over and over again.  This process is called backcrossing.

During backcrossing, the transformed plant is given to plant breeders for crossing with other lines using traditional plant breeding methods. In the video below, agronomy and plant science lecturer Leah Sandall from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln explains how backcrossing works and why it’s done:

In the last step, DNA testing, scientists check the plants to see if they contain the desired transgene.

As Journey of a Gene shows, developing a new crop with genetic engineering is not as simple as just inserting genes of interest into plants, and definitely does not involve injecting unknown material into fruits using syringes.


Additional Resources:

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