A plywood-mounted transformer, a voltmeter-equipped wand and a pair of bulbous vacuum tubes might appear to be just a random collection of components. But Brian Martinell and Dennis McCabe turned them into a tool that would revolutionize plant breeding and help usher in genetic engineering in agriculture. Their gene gun prototype is now displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
The Agracetus researchers invented the device in 1986, and it played an integral role in the development of Roundup Ready soybeans and biotech crops.
The duo drew inspiration for their work from Cornell University geneticist John Sanford, who, a few years earlier, used a tungsten-loaded .22-caliber pistol to fire foreign DNA-coated microbullets into raw onions to create transgenic plant cells. Scientists were also experimenting with Agrobacterium at the time to insert DNA into plant cells. That had limited success on some plant species in the early 1980s, but not in commodity crops such as soybeans, corn, rice and wheat.
In the next few weeks, DTN/Progressive Farmer is exploring the past and future of genetic engineering breakthroughs in agriculture. In this, the fourth story of our special series called Gene Revolution Turns 25, we examine how the gene gun helped ignite agriculture's biotechnology revolution.
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