TCS Daily

'My Dear Watson' - and Crick

By Dean Kleckner - February 28, 2003 12:00 AM

I won't ever forget where I was on November 22, 1963, or what I was doing
when I learned John F. Kennedy had been shot. The same goes for September
11, 2001, the day mass terrorism came to America.

February 28, 1953 - exactly half a century ago today - was a turning point in our history as well, though I don't really remember it. That's the day James Watson and Francis Crick announced the discovery of deoxyribonucleic acid, better known as DNA. According to legend, the two young scientists walked into a pub in Cambridge, England, and declared that they had "found the secret of life."

Years would pass before I even heard the term "DNA," and even more would go by before I appreciated how this discovery would transform agriculture within my lifetime.

For my family 50 years ago, "the secret of life" was to grow crops the old-fashioned way. On the day Watson and Crick stumbled upon DNA, I was probably shivering in the cold of a northern Iowa winter, taking care of the hogs and getting the machinery ready to plant a rented farm with my mother and brother. I don't mean to sound like the old man who fibs to his grandkids about how he used to walk to school barefoot in the snow going uphill both ways, but farming was once harder and more backbreaking than it is today. I remember picking potato bugs off our plants by hand and tilling each field as many as a dozen times before harvest.

That's unheard of now, thanks to the revolution in biotechnology brought on by Watson and Crick.

Sprays removed the need to pluck pests from crops with our fingers, and gene-altered plants made it possible to reduce the amount of spraying we do. Advances in our understanding of DNA have reduced the weeds in our fields and brought on the advent of conservation tillage. This is better for the soil because we aren't ripping it up nearly as much. And it's better for the air we all breathe - the wind is not blowing that "loose" dust into the air at anything like the rate we did in the 'olden days" and fewer trips across the field with a tractor means less exhaust billowing into the skies.

I've made the point previously that farmers were genetic engineers long before anybody even knew what genes were. Our forefathers in agriculture were always trying to breed better plants through a strenuous process of trial and error. Today, however, we have a keen understanding of how the manipulation of DNA helps us feed a hungry world. About one third of all the corn and three quarters of all the soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified, and most of the farmers who have used these products believe it boosts their yield. Increased production will be vital to making sure that a global population expected to reach 9 or 10 billion by 2050 has enough to eat.

The mystery of life still holds many secrets, even five decades after Watson and Crick made their groundbreaking announcement. Exciting developments lie ahead as a new generation of scientists applies the tools of biotechnology to improve and extend our lives in ways never expected.

Agriculture will continue to feel profound effects, too. Acceptance of genetically modified crops will grow, as it has every year since they were widely introduced. We may also see the rise of pharmaceutical farming - sometimes called "pharming" - as highly trained farmers turn specific crops into vessels for the development of new wonder drugs.

It's essential that we keep an open mind about these developments as they happen. Last year, Unilever chairman Niall FitzGerald said, "We have become frightened of what is new, and reluctant to engage in rational scientific debate."

This kind of irrational fear serves us poorly today, just as it would have served us poorly 50 years ago. Imagine how much would be lost if our society had rejected what Watson and Crick had discovered, as if they were 20th-century versions of Galileo. We can't let the same thing happen today, with so many new discoveries within reach.

One thing's for sure: I don't intend to go back to picking off potato bugs with my hands.

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