While a doctorate in molecular biology is needed to fully understand how biotechnology can create new foods like our Arctic® apples, even the basics can be tough to grasp without a background in science. Indeed that’s one of the main reasons biotechnology remains controversial, despite the most reputable scientific bodies agreeing on its safety and benefits. Even so, we do our best to simply explain the key concepts of how we make apples “Arctic”:
When Arctic® apples are growing in the orchard or are part of your lunch, they are essentially the same as their conventional counterparts until you bruise, bite or slice the fruit.
The introduction of this value-added trait does take place in a lab, however, with our hard working, well-credentialed scientists and a Petri dish with tiny pieces of apple leaves (pictured).
The scientist’s job is to introduce the nonbrowning trait into this leaf tissue, which grows into a tiny tree. After additional growth, a portion of that tree is grafted onto a commonly used apple rootstock, creating an Arctic® apple tree. In modern agriculture, nearly ALL fruit trees (including organic) are propagated by grafting.
You may ask, “How exactly does the scientist introduce this nonbrowning trait into the leaf tissue?” These nonbrowning genes need a bit of assistance to be accepted by the leaf tissue:
- Agrobacterium tumefaciens: This is a naturally occurring soil organism that is commonly used in biotechnology because of its special ability. In nature, it can transfer genes into plants. Ever been out in the woods and seen a big wart, or gall, on a tree? That’s the result of A. tumefaciens! Without this helper, we could create the perfect gene sequence to introduce nonbrowning, but the leaf tissue wouldn’t absorb it – like taking a horse to water that won’t drink!
- Marker gene: The transformation process is far from 100% efficient, and we want to know when we are successful. So, we use a marker gene to determine which leaf pieces incorporated the nonbrowning trait and which ones did not. Better to find that out now rather than spend a couple years growing the tree only to find it’s just conventional fruit!
- Promoter/Terminator: If you think of the apple gene sequence we insert into the leaf tissue as a sentence, the promoter and terminator are punctuation. Just as capitalization and periods tell you when a sentence starts and stops, the promoter and terminator tell a plant where to start and stop reading the gene’s “instructions” so the trait is correctly expressed.
So Agrobacterium tumefaciens transfers the genes into the apple, a selection marker tells us which plants have been improved, and the newly introduced genes are turned on and off by promoters and terminators. All of these elements are found in nature, and carefully put together by scientists with lots of initials after their names.
So, that’s the way nonbrowning genes get into apple tissue to create Arctic® apples. It’s really pretty straightforward, and probably easier to understand than how your smartphone works! It’s also important to remember that Arctic® apple trees and their fruit behave just the same as their conventional counterparts, until they are bruised, bitten or cut.