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New York Agriculture in the Classroom

Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix

Lesson Plan

A Recipe for Genetics: Selective Breeding and Bioengineering (Grades 9-12)

Grade Level
9 - 12

Students identify technologies that have changed the way humans affect the inheritance of desired traits in organisms; compare and contrast selective breeding methods to bioengineering techniques; and analyze data to determine the best solution for cultivating desired traits in organisms. Grades 9-12

Estimated Time
1-2 hours
Materials Needed


Activity 1: A Recipe for DNA

Activity 2: Selective Breeding

Activity 3: Bioengineering Issues, Solutions, and Results



agriculture: the science or practice of farming, including cultivation of the soil for the growing of crops and the rearing of animals to provide food, wool, and other products

animal husbandry: the science of breeding and caring for farm animals

artificial selection: the intentional breeding of plants and animals to produce specific, desirable traits

domesticate: to breed a population of animals or plants to serve the purposes of human beings and to need and accept human care

gene: a unit of heredity that is transferred from a parent to offspring and is held to determine some characteristic of the offspring

genetically engineered (GE): an organism or crop whose characteristics have been deliberately modified by manipulating its genetic material

selective breeding: process by which humans control the breeding of plants or animals in order to exhibit or eliminate a particular characteristic

transgenic: containing a gene that has been transferred from one organism to another and acts as a synonym for genetically modified

Did You Know?
  • Even though the process of artificial selection had been in use for centuries to create livestock and crops with desirable characteristics, Charles Darwin is credited with coining the term "artificial selection" in his book that he wrote upon returning from the Galapagos Islands.15
  • There is no substantiated evidence of a difference in risk to human health between current commercially available genetically modified (GM) crops and conventionally bred crops.5
  • Genetically modified (GM) crops in the United States are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).6
Background Agricultural Connections

The development of agriculture, or the intentional production of plants and animals for human use, allowed people to settle in one place and form villages and cities. Approximately 10,000 years ago, the domestication of plants and animals for human use began to develop rapidly. As hunter-gatherers became farmers, they learned to select and save seeds from plants that produced the best crops and to breed the animals that were best suited to meet people’s needs. The first steps of domestication probably happened by accident, but soon farmers deliberately practiced selective breeding to develop crops and livestock more suited to their needs.11 Selective breeding was likely the earliest form of agricultural biotechnology used by humans to improve the genetic characteristics of plants and animals. Agricultural biotechnology includes a variety of tools (including traditional breeding techniques) that alter living organisms, or parts of organisms, to make or modify products; improve plants or animals; or develop microorganisms for specific agricultural uses.16 

Types of Agricultural Biotechnology

1. Selective Breeding

Selective breeding (also known as artificial selection) is a technique still extensively used by crop and livestock producers today. Selective breeding allows producers to select and breed parent organisms with desired traits to produce offspring with more desirable characteristics. This process creates offspring who are genetically superior to the parent organisms, thus improving plants and animals with each generation. The successful results of selective breeding throughout the years can be seen in crop and livestock production today. 

Many crops, including wheat, have been genetically improved through selective breeding. Dr. Norman Borlaug was a research scientist assigned to improve the wheat plant in Mexico. By studying genetics and utilizing selective breeding, he was able to develop short-strawed, disease-resistant wheat that was high yielding. Dr. Borlaug is known as the “Father of the Green Revolution” for his improvement of wheat and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for a lifetime of work to feed a hungry world.4

In the livestock industry, today’s cattle are also evidence of successful selective breeding. Dairy and beef cattle are both highly efficient animals that produce more milk and meat than in years past. Today, there are only 9 million dairy cows in the United States compared to 25 million cows in 1950; however, today’s dairy cows are producing 60% more milk.12 In 1944, the average dairy cow produced 548 gallons of milk in one year. The average dairy cow today is able to produce 2,429 gallons of milk in one year.13 Beef production has seen similar success. Compared to 1977, today’s beef ranchers are producing the same amount of beef with 33% fewer cattle.10 It is important to note that proper nutrition, better health care, and good animal husbandry also play a key role in improving genetics.

2. Bioengineering (BE)/Genetic Engineering (GE)/Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) 

Bioengineered (BE), genetically engineered (GE), and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are all terms that can be used interchangeably. A genetically modified crop is a crop that has had its genetic makeup altered in order to produce a more desirable outcome, such as resistance to disease, drought tolerance, or change in size.1 Bioengineering differs from selective breeding because scientists directly manipulate (introduce, delete, or modify) specific genes within an organism’s DNA. 

Currently, there are a variety of bioengineering methods for crop modification including, transgenesis and gene silencing. Both of these crop modification techniques will be highlighted in this lesson.  

  • Transgenesis: During transgenesis, scientists take the desirable gene from one organism’s DNA and transfer it to another organism’s DNA, creating a new, stronger product—one that is impossible to produce through traditional breeding.1 During activity two, examples of transgenetic crops include the rainbow papaya, Bt corn, soybeans, cotton, and golden rice.
  • Gene silencing: Whether using RNA interference (RNAi) or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR), this form of bioengineering can be used to specifically select and silence certain genes. Often times with crops, it is used to mute undesirable components or traits. During activity two, examples of crops modified using a gene silencing technique are the Arctic apple and the Innate potato. 

Currently, there are 13 genetically modified crops that have been approved and are available on the U.S. market: corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya, squash, apples, potatoes, eggplant, AquAdvantage salmon, and pink pineapple. To learn more about the safety and regulatory process of GM crops refer to the Background Agricultural Connections section of the lesson plan,  Evaluating GMO Perspectives.

  1. Project the A Recipe for Genetics slide deck on the board.
  2. Ask students to think about the food they eat using the following questions: (slide 2)
    • Has our food always looked the same?
    • How has food changed over the years?
    • Why has food changed?
  3. Bring students’ attention to the three images on slide 2. Ask students, “What foods are in each of these three images?” 
  4. Offer a clue by sharing that these foods are all ancient/wild forms of foods we commonly eat today. Allow students to share ideas and guesses. 
  5. Allow students to compare the ancient or wild versions of corn, carrots, and bananas, to today’s food. (slide 3)
  6. When students compare the older foods to today’s foods, ask them to point out visible differences including size, shape, color, and the amount of edible flesh. Ask them how they think the taste would compare.
  7. Ask, “What has caused these traits to change?” (slide 4) Lead students to use their prior knowledge to explain what they can about how humans have influenced the look and taste of bananas, carrots, and corn. (Through selective breeding.)
  8. Ask students to think about animal traits. (slide 5) Have humans influenced animal traits and genetics through the years? (Yes, by selecting plants and animals with desired traits and breeding those animals to produce offspring with the desired traits.)
  9. Explain to students that they will discover two methods used by agriculturists and scientists to improve the genetics and traits of plants and animals. 

Explore and Explain

Activity 1: A Recipe for DNA  

  1. Divide the class into six groups.
  2. Pass out a recipe card to each group.
    • Note: The class can also be divided into smaller groups and two copies of each recipe can be distributed if smaller groups would be more ideal for your class. Slide 8 of the slide deck can be projected to remind students of the instructions.
  3. Instruct students to read through the ingredients and baking instructions on their recipe card. Ask, "If you were to follow the instructions on your recipe, what product will you end up with?" (Each recipe is for a type of cookie.)
  4. Allow each group to share their recipe guesses with the class.
  5. Show students the type of cookie each of their recipes make using the Cookie Key image on slide 9. 
  6. Ask students the following questions: (slide 10)
    • Why would each of you end up with a different cookie?” (While each recipe has some similar ingredients, it also includes different ingredients and instructions for mixing and baking resulting in a different type of cookie.)
    • Are there any improvements that could be made to your recipes? (Yes, depending on what kind of cookie you want.)
    • Could you alter your recipes? (Yes, ingredients could be substituted with other baking alternatives, ingredients could be taken out due to food allergies or intolerance, or ingredients could be added to obtain a desired outcome of some sort.)
  7. Now ask the students to think about their cookie recipes and relate it to what they know about DNA. Ask: (slide 11)
    • What is DNA?
    • How can the DNA in living organisms relate to a cookie recipe? (DNA contains “ingredients” and a set of instructions for living organisms. DNA determines the genetic material and outcome of each living organism.)
    • Can we improve or alter the DNA of plants and animals? (Yes, through selective breeding and genetic engineering.)
  8. Show students the image, A Recipe for DNA (slide 12) and explain that our DNA is made of different “ingredients” including a sugar phosphate backbone, nitrogenous bases, and hydrogen bonds. Explain to students that adenine (A) always pairs with thymine (T) and cytosine (C) always pairs with guanine (G). The order in which these nitrogenous bases line up acts as a set of instructions for DNA that determines the characteristics and traits in all living organisms.
  9. Explain to students that our basic knowledge of DNA and genetic inheritance has allowed humans to influence the genetic traits of plants and animals.

Activity 2: Selective Breeding

  1. Show the video, Natural Selection vs Artificial Selection. (slide 13) 
  2. Following the video, make a Venn Diagram with students to identify the similarities and differences between natural selection and artificial selection (also known as selective breeding). If helpful, display the Natural Selection vs Artificial Selection Venn Diagram.
    • Tip: Be sure students recognize that the terms artificial selection and selective breeding are synonymous.
  3. Set up four different stations around the classroom using the Selective Breeding Station Cards.
  4. Divide the class into four groups and assign each group a specific station around the classroom.
    • Note: A second set of station cards can be printed so students are in smaller groups.
  5. Pass out one Selective Breeding handout to each student.
  6. Explain to students that they will be rotating through 4 stations. They will have approximately 5 minutes at each station to read the station card instructions, background information, and scenario.
  7. Set a timer. Consider projecting the timer in the classroom to allow students to gauge their time at each station. Adjust the time limit as necessary. After time is up, groups should rotate to the next station until all four stations have been visited.
  8. Bring the class back together to discuss each of the stations.
  9. Allow students to share their thoughts and answers for each of the stations.
    • Which animals did they select for breeding purposes?
    • How does selective breeding (artificial selection) benefit livestock producers?
    • How do these selective breeding scenarios affect us?
  10. Discuss each of the following scenarios with students.
    • Milk Production (Holstein/black and white cows)
      • Which cows did you select and why? (Ideally, students should have selected the cows 6, 5, 2, and 3)
      • How does selective breeding in the dairy industry affect us as consumers? (Dairy producers are not only selecting healthy livestock but breeding and improving traits that directly affect our food supply. The milk produced on dairies is used to make many products including cheese, yogurt, butter, sour cream, and ice cream.)
    • Butterfat Content (Jersey/brown cows)
      • Which Jersey cows did students select to maintain a high butterfat content in the herd? (Ideally, students should have selected the cows 1, 4, 3, and 2)
    • Birthweight and Weaning Weight (Black Angus bulls)
      • Which Angus bull has a low birthweight for small cows, but high weaning weight? Will some students sacrifice a low birthweight to have a very high weaning weight? Remind students that when beef producers sell the calves in the fall, they are paid by the pound, so high weaning weights mean more money. However, calves born at 90-100 pounds can cause problems at birth for heifers and small cows. Ideally, bull 1 with an 80-pound birthweight will still give producers a large calf at weaning.)
    • Horned and Polled Cattle (Hereford cattle/black cattle)
      • Which cows should be selected to ensure no offspring have horns? (Cows 3, 4 and 5. When using a horned bull with a genotype (pp), cows with the genotype (PP) should be selected for breeding. (pp) x (PP) = (Pp) The bull will always pass on a recessive horned gene (p) to his offspring, so if you cross a horned bull (pp) with a heterozygous cow (Pp), there is a chance for horned offspring. Breeding the horned bull (pp) with the horned cow (pp) will give producers a 100% chance of having horned offspring.
  11. Now ask students what other technologies or management practices can affect desired traits in livestock. Explain that proper care and animal husbandry can help maintain desired traits and genetics. Close monitoring of animal health, proper nutrition, shelter, and waste management all affect livestock production. A calf may be born with superior genetics, but if it is not taken care of properly or fed correctly, inherited traits may be negatively affected.
  12. To transition into Activity 3, ask students, “What does it mean if an organism is genetically modified?” Allow students to answer or brainstorm ideas.

Activity 3: Bioengineering Issues, Solutions, and Results

  1. Prior to class, collect empty wrappers or cartons of various processed food items. (e.g., crackers, cereal, granola bars, cookies, gum, etc.) You may also assign students to bring in the wrappers or packaging of their favorite foods and snacks. Ideally, student should have 2-3 wrappers or cartons to study. Ensure that you have some products without a bioengineered statement, as well as products that do contain bioengineered ingredients. 
  2. Pass out wrappers and cartons to each student. 
  3. Ask students to study the ingredients in each of their products. 
  4. Create a list of common ingredients on the board. 
  5. Explain to students that some of them may see a statement on their packaged foods saying, “This product contains bioengineered food ingredients.” Typically, this statement can be found below the ingredients or below the distribution information. 
  6. Poll the class and ask students to raise their hands if any of their food items contain bioengineered food ingredients. 
  7. Ask students, “What does this mean?” Allow students to share thoughts and comments. 
  8. Explain to students that in 2022, it became mandatory for food manufacturers, importers, and certain retailers to disclose information as to whether retail food is bioengineered (BE) or uses BE ingredients. 
  9. Explain to students “bioengineered” or “BE” is the new industry term for “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs) and “genetically engineered” foods. Currently, there are 11 genetically modified (bioengineered) crops that have been approved and are available on the U.S. market: corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya, squash, apples, potatoes and pink pineapple. 
  10. Ask students, “If your food label contains bioengineered food ingredients, which of these 11 genetically modified crops could be the bioengineered ingredient in your food products?” (Most likely corn, soy lecithin [soybeans], sugar [from sugar beets], and canola.) 
  11. Explain to students that they’re going to explore various bioengineered crops (including crops used as ingredients in their food) and determine the reasonings behind having a genetically modified variety and how that crop was genetically modified using modern biotechnology. 
  12. Divide the class into groups of four students.
  13. Start by passing out a set of Bioengineering Issues Cards (page 1) to each group.
  14. Instruct groups to read through each of the cards. Explain that each card describes a challenge.
  15. Discuss each of the issues as a class. Consider asking students the following questions to lead a class discussion: (slide 15)
    • Are you familiar with any of these issues related to the production of our food and fiber?
    • What are the negative impacts of these issues? (food waste, malnutrition, inefficient use of natural resources like water and soil nutrients, reduced production of food and fiber that humans need.)
    • Who is affected by these issues? (Farmers and consumers, so everyone.)
    • Can any of the issues be resolved? (Yes.)
  16. Ask students to brainstorm possible solutions. Prompt students to think about what they have learned about selective breeding. What limitations would selective breeding present?
  17. Next, pass out the Bioengineering Solutions Cards (page 2) to each group of students.
  18. Instruct students to read through the solutions and match each of the solutions to an issue.
  19. Pass out the Bioengineering Results cards (page 3) to each group of students. (This will be their third and final set of cards.)
  20. Instruct students to match each of the results to the issues and solutions cards. Each match should include one GMO issue, solution, and result.
  21. Discuss each of the Bioengineering cards. Explain that there are currently 11 genetically modified crops available on the U.S. market. 
    Teach for Clarity

    An important point of science and agricultural literacy is for students to recognize which crops in the United States have a bioengineered variety available for farmers to grow and consumers to purchase. As of 2021 these foods are now labeled as "BE," or Bioengineered. The term GMO might be more recognizable to your students. Grocery stores contain many, many foods with a "non-GMO" label that do not actually have a bioengineered variety. This leads to the misconception that many or most foods on the market are bioengineered. This lesson should help students recognize that multiple methods can be used to influence and genetic traits of plants and animals.

  22. For a brief explanation of the process of creating a bioengineered (GMO) seed variety, watch How Are GMOs Made? The Genetically Modified Hawaiian Papaya Case Study. (slide 16)
  23. Summarize by explaining that bioengineered seed varieties (GMOs) are created using a scientific process called transgenesis which refers to the process of transferring a gene from one organism to another with the intent of acquiring a new genetic trait.
  1. There are varying opinions on selective breeding and biotechnology terminologies. Some consider selective breeding to be a form of biotechnology, while others define selective breeding as a separate scientific process.  
  2. Now that students have learned about selective breeding and biotechnology (such as bioengineered foods), ask students, “Should selective breeding be considered a form of biotechnology? Why or why not?”  
  3. Display the two images below, if necessary, to help students compare and visualize the varying opinions. Allow students to share ideas and thoughts on how the use of terminology may clarify or lead to misconceptions in science. 

Teach with Clarity

Terminology can be confusing in discussions about biotechnology, bioengineering, and other specific forms of plant and animal breeding. Biotechnology is the umbrella term that encompasses all methods of genetic manipulation. Including selective breeding under the umbrella of biotechnology can lead to misconceptions. To avoid misconceptions be sure your students recognize the similarities and differences outlined in the Venn Diagram. 



Activity 2 designed by Chrissy Dittmer from Iowa Agriculture in the Classroom

Bekka Israelsen
Utah Agriculture in the Classroom
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