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Breakthrough Expected Soon in ‘Green Genes’ Revolution

United Press International

A breakthrough is near in the “green genes” revolution from which scientists hope to create super-plants, according to a leading genetic engineer.

“Genes currently have the status that microchips did in the 1950s,” says R. C. Valentine, a leading genetic researcher at the University of California, Davis. “The microchips led rapidly to today’s computers. We still have to build the gene-splicing machines.”

The biggest advances so far, Valentine said, have come in the medical field with the manufacture of a human insulin substitute by Genentech.

‘Gene Hunters’

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In agriculture, Valentine said, “gene hunters” are constantly looking for the gene that can change the properties of a plant to what is desired. His own research, he said, has focused on growing plants resistant to the high salinity of the soil in California’s San Joaquin Valley farm belt.

“In California, farmers add 100 train loads of 100 cars each of salt into the irrigation water each day of the growing season,” Valentine said, adding that the salinity has reached crisis proportions in the best farmland in the world.

“We’re very excited about the future of salinity-tolerant genes,” Valentine said. He said a new series of vitamins--small organic molecules--were recently discovered that allows plants to grow under stress caused by either too much salt or too little water.

“We’ve found the genes; we’ve found the vitamins,” Valentine said. “They’ve not yet been moved into higher plant life, but we’re about to do that.”

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Effect of Gene Change

He said changing only one gene in a plant’s structure can increase the organism’s tolerance to salt toxicity by 1,000 times.

Farmers who are facing record foreclosures could run profitable operations through future “molecular farming” where genetic traits could be given to plants to allow them to make oils used in the bath products industry, Valentine said.

“Instead of just $2 a bushel for their crop, farmers would also get $30 a pound for the oils,” said Valentine, adding that the United States imports billions of dollars worth of such fatty materials for soaps and other products.

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