Marker Assisted Breeding

In the early 2000s, the power of modern biotechnology was added to the power of traditional breeding in the method called marker-assisted selection (MAS for short). In MAS, scientists decode the DNA of a plant that they want to breed to see which genes give it good qualities. These genes are considered ''markers'' of the good qualities. Then, they cross-breed the plant with others and produce many seeds, each with a different combination of genes. They then plant the seeds. Instead of having to wait months oryearstofind out which individuals have the best genes (as they must as when breeding apple trees, for example), scientists examine the young sprouts for the marker genes. The ones with the markers are the ones to keep. This method can greatly speed up the selective-breeding process. Critics, however, argue that it is a mistake to replace many varieties of crop plant with just a few that are supposed to be ''best.'' They argue that a wise system of agriculture would resist pests and conserve soil by growing many varieties together on smaller farms, rather than raising gigantic fields of genetically uniform crops, no matter whether they are produced by breeding or genetic engineering.

It was not until Darwin's explanation of evolution was combined with the understanding of genes, which were first described by Gregor Mendel (1822-1824) in the late nineteenth century, that humans were able to selectively breed plants and animals in a scientific way. The first wide application of artificial insemination to selective livestock breeding was in the 1930s. Artificial insemination is when sperm from a male animal is inserted artificially into a female. It is easier to send sperm across the country to a breeding farm than to transport the whole male animal, so artificial insemination became affordable to breed more selectively than before.

Today, breeders continue to work to make animals more useful to human beings.

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