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What is genetic modification (GM) of crops and how is it done?

GM is a technology that involves inserting DNA into the genome of an organism. To produce a GM plant, new DNA is transferred into plant cells. Usually, the cells are then grown in tissue culture where they develop into plants. The seeds produced by these plants will inherit the new DNA.  

The characteristics of all living organisms are determined by their genetic makeup and its interaction with the environment. The genetic makeup of an organism is its genome, which in all plants and animals is made of DNA. The genome contains genes, regions of DNA that usually carry the instructions for making proteins. It is these proteins that give the plant its characteristics. For example, the colour of flowers is determined by genes that carry the instructions for making proteins involved in producing the pigments that colour petals.

Genetic modification of plants involves adding a specific stretch of DNA into the plant’s genome, giving it new or different characteristics. This could include changing the way the plant grows, or making it resistant to a particular disease. The new DNA becomes part of the GM plant’s genome which the seeds produced by these plants will contain.


The first stage in making a GM plant requires transfer of DNA into a plant cell. One of the methods used to transfer DNA is to coat the surface of small metal particles with the relevant DNA fragment, and bombard the particles into the plant cells. Another method is to use a bacterium or virus. There are many viruses and bacteria that transfer their DNA into a host cell as a normal part of their life cycle. For GM plants, the bacterium most frequently used is called Agrobacterium tumefaciens. The gene of interest is transferred into the bacterium and the bacterial cells then transfer the new DNA to the genome of the plant cells. The plant cells that have successfully taken up the DNA are then grown to create a new plant. This is possible because individual plant cells have an impressive capacity to generate entire plants. On rare occasions, the process of DNA transfer can happen without deliberate human intervention. For example the sweet potato contains DNA sequences that were transferred thousands of years ago, from Agrobacterium bacteria into the sweet potato genome. 

There are other ways to change the genomes of crops, some of which are long established, such as mutational breeding, and others of which are new, such as genome editing, but in this Q&A we are focusing on GM as it is currently usually defined for regulatory purposes in Europe.

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