Genetically Modified Plants


The genetic modification of plants is now an established tool for plant breeders in many parts of the world, with the area of land used for genetically modified (GM) crop cultivation rising to 170 million hectares by 2012. This article puts genetic modification of plants into the context of scientific plant breeding, and describes the techniques that are used to transform plants and that define the term genetically modified. The design of transgenes is described, as is the use of selectable and visible marker genes. The use of GM crops in commercial agriculture is covered in detail, including GM crops that may be developed for commercial use in the near future. The barriers to the continued development of crop biotechnology are considered, notably the cost, the associated issue of regulatory compliance and the problem of consumer acceptance. The consequences of science losing the GM crop debate are discussed.

Key Concepts:

  • Genetic modification (GM) is a term used to describe the artificial introduction of a gene or genes into an organism's genome.

  • Genetic modification is now an established tool in plant breeding in many parts of the world.

  • Genetically modified crops were grown on 170 million hectares of land in 2012.

  • ‘Input’ traits such as herbicide tolerance and insect resistance are by far the most successful GM traits.

  • Other GM traits in commercial crops include virus resistance, modified oil content, increased nutritional value, drought tolerance and the synthesis of high‐value, nonfood products (biopharming).

  • Increased vitamin A content, improved food safety and bioremediation are targets for GM crop programmes that may be commercialised in the next few years.

  • GM is the most heavily regulated area of plant breeding, and over‐regulation is a significant barrier to the development of the technology.

  • Consumer acceptance of GM crops remains a difficult issue in some regions, notably Europe.

Keywords: plant biotechnology; transgenic plants; genetic transformation; crop improvement; food security

Figure 1.

Production of GM wheat plants using A. tumefaciens. (a) A crown gall caused by the natural infection of a tree by A. tumefaciens, Ashridge Forest, UK, 2013. (b) Clusters of potentially transgenic cells (callus) derived from infection of wheat embryos by A. tumefaciens. (c) Callus cultures induced to form shoots by application of a plant hormone. (d) Shoots forming roots to make complete plantlets. Thanks to Caroline Sparks and Rothamsted Research Visual Communication Unit for (b–d).

Figure 2.

Tissue‐specificity of the glu‐D1x gene promoter from wheat shown using the uidA gene encoding β‐glucuronidase (Gus) as a reporter gene. (a) Longitudinal and transverse sections of seeds from early to mid‐development, showing the gene becoming active in the endosperm (white flour tissue) but not the embryo as the seed develops; (b) transverse section of a mid‐development seed showing expression of the reporter gene in the endosperm and (c) higher magnification section showing expression of the reporter gene in the cells of the endosperm but not the surrounding aleurone (Lamacchia et al., ). Thanks to Caroline Sparks (Rothamsted Research) for (b).

Figure 3.

Visual marker/reporter genes in transgenic wheat embryos. (a) β‐glucuronidase (Gus); (b) GFP expressed transiently after particle bombardment; (c) GFP targeted to the nucleus and (d) DsRed. Thanks to Caroline Sparks, Rothamsted Research, for (a), (c) and (d).

Figure 4.

Field trial of GM wheat, Rothamsted Research, UK, 2012.



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Further Reading

Chrispeels MJ and Sadava DE (2002) Plants, Genes, and Crop Biotechnology, 2nd edn. Burlington: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Christou P and Klee H (2004) Handbook of Plant Biotechnology. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

Ferry N and Gatehouse AMR (eds) (2009) Environmental Impact of Genetically Modified Crops. Wallingford, UK: CABI.

Halford N (ed.) (2006) Plant Biotechnology: Current and Future Applications of Genetically Modified Crops. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

Halford NG (2012) Genetically Modified Crops, 2nd edn. London, UK: Imperial College Press.

Slater A, Scott N and Fowler M (2003) Plant Biotechnology: The Genetic Manipulation of Plants. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Somers DJ, Langridge P and Gustafson P (eds) (2009) Plant Genomics: Methods and Protocols. Methods in Molecular Biology 513. New York: Humana Press, c/o Springer Science and Business Media.

Stahl U, Donalies UEB and Nevoight E (2008) Food Biotechnology. Advances in Biochemical Engineering/Biotechnology 111. Berlin, Heidelberg, Germany: Springer‐Verlag.

Thompson JA (2002) Genes for Africa: Genetically Modified Crops in the Developing World. Landsdowne, South Africa: UCT Press.

Thompson JA (2007) Seeds for the Future: The Impact of Genetically Modified Crops on the Environment. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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Halford, Nigel G(Apr 2014) Genetically Modified Plants. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003362.pub2]