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Micropropagation and Sustainability
Brandon Keim, 7 Aug 06


Paramutation research is a good example of a sensibly worldchanging approach to understanding plant genetics. Subtle comprehension, however, isn't always sexy. Sometimes folks want that sci-fi lab of the future. They want action. Intervention and tweaking and hacking. Others want a complete abandonment of the technology. And while splicing genes between species isn't a good approach to GE, neither do agricultural biotechs need to be totally hands-off to be responsible.

One approach that retains some of GE's glamour is micropropagation. A few cells are taken from a plant -- one that is, say, particularly disease-resistant, or thrives in a certain climate -- and grown in a dish. Samples can be taken from the new plant, grown in their own dishes, and so on, eventually producing a population identical to the original and ready to be moved from lab to field.

Micropropagation is widely used in much of the developing world, especially Asia: it's produced low-disease, high-yield potatoes in Vietnam and India and Kenya. It's also being used to conserve rare plant species.

Micropropagation is not problem-free. It's important to have a deep, detailed undertanding of each original plant. Otherwise, the result is an identically flawed population. Identical plants are vulnerable to the same things, making monocultures prone to catastrophically widespread failures -- so it's essential to cultivate a variety of plants. But farmers actually do the micropropagation work themselves, breeding their own favorite strains. This increases genetic diversity, promotes the development of locale-specific crops, and doesn't make farmers rely on agbiotech giants. Both economically and scientifically, micropropagation beats GE.

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So, it sounds like "Micropropagation" is cloning. Why the fancy new name? ...Is it because it doesn't require any of the fancy cell-insemination stuff that animal cloning requires, because you can just take a cutting & grow from there? Or is there some other difference?

Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 8 Aug 06

A clone by any other name is still . . . yep, that's another word for micropropagation. I don't know the anthrolinguistic history of the word, but I'd guess it's used instead of "cloning" because the latter term has such strong associations with ultra-high-tech labs and animals. Personally, I like 'micropropagation' better when talking plants . . . proopagation is derived from 'propagationem,' meaning 'extension' or 'to extend' or something like that, which just feels right in this context. And of course 'micro' has such a good green feel to it.

Posted by: Brandon Keim on 8 Aug 06



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