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Out of the Swamps and Up from the Soil: DNA at the Dinner Table

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Back in the 1970s, as scientists were putting DNA from different species on the chopping block and cooking up new transgenic recipes, a synthetic amino acid called glyphosate had quietly made its way through the U.S. patent system. Most people know amino acids as essential dietary components, the building blocks that make up proteins. But glyphosate is not the kind of amino acid that you want to eat, at least not in large doses. Rather than helping to build up proteins, glyphosate actually blocks the synthesis of essential amino acids in plant cells, leading to their death. This is exactly what makes it a powerful herbicide, and this is what motivated the quest to patent its biochemical structure. In the form of the herbicide Roundup, glyphosate sits at the nexus of Monsanto's domination of the GM seed industry. It has now also become a centerpiece in the story of opposition to GM foods.

Because it degrades relatively rapidly when exposed to sunlight and heat, is cheap to manufacture, and has relatively low human and environmental toxicity, glyphosate in the form of Roundup became an instant winner for Monsanto in the 1970s. In an industry still struggling to emerge from its chemical ties to mid-twentieth century warfare production, Roundup offered a kinder, gentler type of product that could be marketed to the farmer and homeowner alike. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, Roundup drove Monsanto's profits and earned itself a household name. But all good things must come to an end, and the standard life of a patent is only seventeen years. Once proprietary protection expires, a product like Roundup is likely to generate a feeding frenzy for competitors who can gorge on its reputation in the marketplace but make and sell it for less. Monsanto desperately needed to find a way to extend the proprietary life of its blockbuster product.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 10, 2008

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