Transgenic: being or used to produce an organism or cell of one species into which one or more genes of another species have been incorporated. – Merriam-Webster
In a cornfield, that’s where my introduction to plant genetics took place more than 50 years ago. I was one of a small group of adolescent corn detasselers. There were six or seven of us, including several teens I had never met before. I was 15. The ages of the others ranged from 13 to 16. I guess you never forget your first real job, no more than you forget your first girlfriend or your first car. Detasseling corn was my first real, show-up-for-work-every-day job.
Don’t know what corn detasseling is? You probably didn’t grow up in a small Midwest community. My quiet northwest Ohio village had just a single red light. Cornfields, truck farms and greenhouses producing tomatoes surrounded my small town. My first paychecks came courtesy of a hybrid corn seed company about 3 miles from my home. Detasseling corn for that company served as somewhat of a right of passage into the work world for many of us local kids.
Detasseling corn? Let’s start by sharing that it’s the most basic (and exhausting) plant genetics lesson an individual will ever experience first hand. As a detasseler your job is to walk down row after row of corn and snatch off the top part of the plants, the male part where the pollen comes from. You have to do this before these plants pollinate themselves. You must remove practically every tassel in the rows where you and your colleagues are working. Otherwise the plants won’t be pollinated by the nearby rows of a different variety of corn. This cross-pollination combines the best traits of both varieties to produce the desired hybrid seed.
Our era of transgenic plants
Reading a recent article, “GMO Grass That ‘Escaped’ Defies Eradication, Divides Grass Seed Industry, from The Oregonian, jogged my memory about the simple genetics lesson I learned during those hot summer days so many years ago. The article also caused me to think (again) about the impact that transgenic lawn grasses may have on the commercial lawn industry or even for homeowners, should these grasses become commercially available. Glyphosate-resistant lawn grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrasses and tall fescues, are a reality and, from several reports, have already been tested on residential properties.
Is it unreasonable to expect the commercializing of glyphosate-resident lawn grasses, given that those of us living in the United States already accept and depend upon transgenic corn and soybean crops for producing much of our food? Being neither food nor fiber, is transgenic turfgrass even a good idea? Would the adoption of these grasses offer sufficient social and environmental benefits to justify their release and widespread use? Does their introduction into the market even offer the promise of becoming a profitable business opportunity – either as a product or perhaps in combination with related management products?
These are some of the questions that must be answered convincingly before these grasses are commercialized.
A final reminisce
No such questions clouded our dreams more than a half-century ago. Everything seemed simpler to us in that hot cornfield. The idea that genes from one organism – either chemically or mechanically – could be inserted into and alter other unrelated organisms would likely have seemed straight out of a Marvel comic book.
Instead, our thoughts focused on the day-to-day as we worked in the heat among the “sea” of stalks and leaves that blocked even the slightest breeze. Not taking into account the monotony of the job, the sweat and the “corn cuts” from the plants (imagine a paper cut, only worse), the experience wasn’t all bad – emphasis on “all.”
Being young, healthy and appreciative of having money in our pockets, we youngsters formed friendships and engaged in “corn wars” and other foolish fun when we weren’t yanking tassels or carping about our shared miseries. In the end, most us even earned our bonuses.
These days the company’s seed products include soybeans, sweet corn, along with hybrid corn, transgenic of course. I’m not even sure the company even needs detasselers these days. Apparently, some genetically manipulated varieties of corn no longer require hand detasseling to generate hybrids.
Advances in plant and human health, thanks to genetics research, are ever accelerating with lots of discoveries and new products just waiting to be shared with us. These include superior lawn grasses. But whether they will be glyphosate-resistant remains a question.