While Arctic® apples may be the first apple to seek market access that’s been genetically transformed by the deliberate insertion of DNA, the apple industry is no stranger to modern science. In fact, we’ve been cloning and otherwise genetically manipulating apples for centuries. This is the first of two posts on the topic of the science of apple growing.
First, let’s define “biotechnology.” Biotechnology simply refers to man’s manipulation of living organisms to process food or to make other products. Historic examples of biotechnology at work include using yeast to brew beer and wine or to raise bread, using fungi to make cheese, and using bacteria to preserve foods by pickling (think: sauerkraut). Hungarian agricultural engineer Karl Ereky reportedly first used the term in the early 20th century to describe his large-scale commercial livestock operation (which was probably the first of those, too). In the 1920s, Alexander Fleming harnessed biotechnology to produce penicillin from a fungus.
It has only been during the last 10-15 years or so that the term “biotechnology” has become synonymous with “genetic modification,” and both sciences have been wrongly demonized in the process.
You may be surprised to learn that humankind has been cloning apples (and many other plants) for thousands of years, without a hint of controversy. Roman records document cloning of apple trees in the first millennium B.C. Apples don’t grow “true to seed,” so if you want to grow a certain variety of apple on more than one tree, cuttings from the donor parent tree must be grafted to recipient tree(s) (see photo). We call that “vegetatative propagation” in horticulture industryspeak. The offspring trees are genetically identical to the parent tree, hence they are clones.