Biotech Is Not a Product

10 Questions with...

Anastasia Bodnar, geneticist, blogger, and maize-fortifier, on misconceptions surrounding biotechnology and drawing inspiration from dog-eared utopian classics.

Courtesy: Anastasia Bodnar


Anastasia Bodnar



Job title:

Research Assistant, studying plant genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture


Department of Agronomy, Iowa State University, Ames, IA

[1] How do you explain your job at cocktail parties?

My lab works on improving nutritional traits in maize. We’re trying to develop maize that has highly digestible iron to help combat iron deficiency—a problem that affects a third of the world’s population. Nutrient deficiencies are a problem for people who subsist on a grain-based diet because some important nutrients in plant foods aren’t easily digested—they just pass through the body. The ideal solution is a diet that includes a variety of foods, but that’s just not accessible to many people. Until broader efforts to reduce poverty can take hold, crops with improved nutrients could be very important in reducing death and disease caused by nutrient deficiencies.

[2] In the past six months, what has been the most exciting advance or breakthrough you’ve had in the lab?

My most exciting recent news is that I’m going to help the maize genetics community develop some outreach programs. There’s so much amazing research being done, but few researchers have opportunities to communicate their work to the public. I’m hoping to find ways that scientists can easily communicate though social media such as podcasts or blogs without taking too much time away from their work. One example of science outreach is a website that I helped develop called, where scientists and other professionals are invited to write about genetics, biotechnology, and the science behind agriculture while non-scientists are invited to post questions and share their ideas about the topics.

[3] Complete this sentence: We could make huge strides in the field, if we could just figure out…

How to make precise genetic changes, such as changing one nucleotide in a gene. This could be very useful for developing improved crops as well as things like gene therapy in humans. Homologous recombination  and zinc finger proteins both have big potential, but a lot of work needs to be done before they can be widely used.

[4] What’s the biggest misconception about your field?

It’s easy to think that all biotech traits are the same, and that a problem that arises with one trait would be a problem with all of them. What people often don’t realize is that biotech is a method, not a product. Some traits exceed people’s expectations of what biotech is all about. For example, many nutritional enhancement traits are publicly funded, intended to be released at low or no cost, may be used in low-input agricultural systems, may be replanted year after year without contracts, and so on.

[5] Scientist and non-scientist you’d most like to meet?

I’d really like to meet Nina Fedoroff, science advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She’s a very successful researcher who’s also been an important advocate for science-based public policy.

[6] What are you reading now?

The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt, an assigned reading for a class called Science, Technology, and Public Policy. It’s not something I would have picked up on my own, but it’s really interesting to learn how our ideas of politics and society have changed with the development of different technologies.

[7] When I was a child, I wanted to be…

A paleontologist or an astronaut, until I learned about genetic engineering. My dad, a huge science fiction fan, shared his dog-eared copy of Copernick’s Rebellion by Leo Frankowski with me when I was 13. In the book, a genetic engineer finds creative ways to help humanity achieve utopia. Pretty fanciful stuff, but it helped me to see the huge potential in genetics to help people.

[8] What advice would you give someone just starting out in your field?

The hardest thing to learn is that it’s ok if an experiment doesn’t work out the way you expected. Sometimes those unexpected results turn out to be an important discovery!

[9] If the NSF surprised you with a $2 million grant tomorrow, what would you spend it on?

What a wonderful thought! I’d really like to investigate the idea of “substantial equivalence”. We’ve all been working under the assumption that plants produced with biotechnology are mostly the same as their non-biotech sisters. I’d like to find out just how similar and different they really are at the molecular level. I’d look at gene expression and metabolic products in biotech corn, and compare that to gene expression and metabolites in a wide variety of non-biotech corn cultivars. A similar study has already been done in tomatoes, but I think it’s important to have the data available for major crops so new biotech traits can be tested and compared to the larger dataset.

[10] Why do you do science? What inspires you?

DNA is the language of life. It’s the code that gives every feather just the right shape so that eagles can fly, that gives every plant the ability to reach toward the sun. Every aspect of my work, from trying to find out a gene’s function to communicating that wonder to non-scientists is a joy.

Originally published April 19, 2010

Tags dna genetics research

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