Tag Archives: gmo

Genetically modified grass saves soils destroyed by military target practice

A common species of prairie grass can help clean soils of dangerous chemicals released by military-grade compounds, a new paper reports. The only catch (at least, in the eyes of some), is that we need to genetically modify it for the task.

A plot of switchgrass. Image credits Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center / Flickr.

Genetically modified (GM) switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) can be used to purge soils of RDX residues, according to new research. RDX belongs to the nitramide chemical family, is flavorless, odorless, and extremely explosive. Pound for pound, it’s more powerful than dynamite. Given its high stability and ability to explode hard, RDX was in use in military-grade munitions during (and since) WW2. You’ve probably heard of C-4; RDX is its main component, alongside some plasticizing agents.

One downside of using RDX on a wide scale (that, admittedly, wouldn’t factor in very much during an active conflict) is that it can be quite damaging to the environment. In particular, compounds produced by RDX after it detonates (in combat or in firing ranges) spread around the point of impact and accumulate in groundwater, where they can pose a very real threat to any humans or wildlife they come into contact with. RDX stored in munition dumps, buried in minefields, or in rounds discarded improperly will also leech such compounds into their environment.

Genetically modified help

However, one species that’s traditionally employed against soil erosion can be modified to remove these compounds from the soil. The study, led by members at the University of York, has shown that this approach has promise at least when talking about the land on live-fire training ranges, munitions dumps, and minefields. Theoretically, however, it should be applicable wherever switchgrass can grow.

“The removal of the toxic RDX from training ranges is logistically challenging and there is currently a lack of cost-effective and sustainable solutions,” explains Dr. Liz Rylott from the Department of Biology and Director of the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP), co-author of the study.

“Our research demonstrates how the expression, in switchgrass, of two bacterial genes that have evolved specifically to degrade RDX gives the plants the ability to remove and metabolize RDX in the field at concentrations relevant to live-fire military ranges. We demonstrated that by inserting these genes into switchgrass, the plant then had the ability to degrade RDX to non-detectable levels in the plant tissue.”

RDX-bearing ammo is still commonly used at firing ranges for training purposes, and has been for several decades already. This has led to high and widespread levels of groundwater contamination around such sites, which is never good news.

The authors explain that their approach involved grafting two genes from bacteria that are known to break down RDX into switchgrass. These plants — essentially GMOs at this point — were then grown on contaminated soil at one US military site. The plants grew well and had degraded the targeted compounds below detectable in their own tissues levels by the end of the experiment.

All in all, the grass degraded RDX at a rate of 27 kgs per hectare, which isn’t bad at all. According to the team, this is the most successful attempt to use plants to clean organic pollutants in the field to date. Processes that use plants for this purpose are collectively known as phytoremediation, and they’re a subset of the greater field of bioremediation, which involves the use of any type of organism or biological process for this task.

The findings here are of particular interest as organic pollutants, in general, tend to interact heavily with their environment (meaning they cause quite a lot of damage) while also being resistant to natural degradation processes (meaning they last for a long time in the wild). RDX in particular is of growing concern in the US. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has it designated as a priority pollutant, with more than 10 million hectares of military land in the US being contaminated with weapons-associated compounds, RDX making up a sizable chunk of that contamination.

“The recalcitrance of RDX to degradation in the environment, combined with its high mobility through soil and groundwater, mean that plumes of toxic RDX continue to spread below these military sites, threatening drinking water supplies,” explains Professor Neil Bruce, also from CNAP, the study’s corresponding author.

One example the paper cites is that plumes of RDX pollution were found in groundwater and aquifers beneath the Massachusetts Military Reservation training range in Cape Cod back in 1997. This aquifer was, in effect, the only source of drinking water for half a million people, and the discovery prompted the EPA to ban the use of all live ammo during training at this site.

The paper “Field trial demonstrating phytoremediation of the military explosive RDX by XplA/XplB-expressing switchgrass” has been published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

GMO plants with algae grow more and need less water

As climate change kicks in, droughts could lead to lower crop yields in the future. But genetic manipulation could help prevent this, researchers argued, having modified a tobacco plant with an algae-based protein so as to increase growth and reduce its need for water.

Credit Flickr

The study focused on photosynthesis, the process through which plants use sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce nutrients for their growth. Improving this process would be highly beneficial for agriculture but it is so complex that attempts to do so have failed in the past.

The researchers used genetic manipulation to increase the levels of a naturally-occurring enzyme that is already present in the tobacco plant, and to introduce a new enzyme from cyanobacteria and a protein from algae. Doing so improved the photosynthesis process and also meant less water was needed to grow higher crop yields.

“The global population is increasing, and that means we need to grow more food. We are also seeing the effects of climate change, creating more extreme weather, so we will have more droughts. That means we are going to need to make better use of water. We need more crops from the same amount of land, and with less water,” Patricia Lopez-Calcagno, a co-author, told The Guardian.

Dealing with such challenges using conventional plant breeding techniques could be possible, but it would take many decades and time is running short, the researchers argued. Instead, they decided to take a shortcut that wasn’t available in nature by introducing a gene from algae.

While many people frequently question GMO crops, the researchers said the genetic modification performed on the plants to create the enhanced photosynthesis is quite different. Lopez-Calcagno said that “there’s nothing to worry about this” and said GMOs have had a bad press, associated with the overuse of pesticides and big corporations.

The study started in 2013 and it will take around five to ten years of development to be able to grow crops with the technique. The algae showed potential for other uses of photosynthesis such as capturing and storing carbon dioxide. There are labs already working on using algae as a biofuel, for example.

The use of GMO crops has been banned in the European Union after a directive in 2001. There’s only one type of GMO maize grown in EU states, mainly in Spain and Portugal. One of the triggers behind the directive was the attempt to introduce a fish gene into tomatoes, research that didn’t pan out.

The positive results encouraged the team from the University of Essex in the UK to refine the technique even further so as to use it on other crops, including soybeans and rice. This could be beneficial to deal with the challenges faced by agriculture, including a warmer world and the need to increase efficiency.

The study was published in the journal Nature Plants.

Those who oppose GMO’s know the least about them — but believe they know more than experts

When researchers asked 500 Americans how they feel about foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), everybody expected the results to be spicy — but they were even more interesting than that.

There were two main findings in the study. The first one was expected, although not encouraging: 90% of participants oppose foods containing GMOs, which is in conflict with a strong scientific consensus — almost 90% of scientists believe GMOs are safe and can be of great benefit to human society. The second finding, however, was even starker.

Researchers also asked participants how well they think they are informed on the matter. Those who opposed GMOs the most believed they knew the most about the topic. Yet, when they were given an actual scientific test, they scored the lowest.

“There is widespread agreement among scientists that genetically modified foods are safe to consume and have the potential to provide substantial benefits to humankind. However, many people still harbor concerns about them or oppose their use,” researchers write in the study.

“Similar results were obtained in a parallel study with representative samples from the United States, France and Germany,” they add.

This belief, that one knows very much about the topic (even more than an expert) is remarkably widespread — even when this is clearly not the case. Scientists call it the Dunning–Kruger effect.

The effect was described in a 1999 seminal paper aptly called “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”. The paper drew inspiration from the case of a criminal called McArthur Wheeler who robbed banks while his face was covered with lemon juice — something he believed would make it invisible to the surveillance cameras (based on his misunderstanding of how lemon juice can be used as invisible ink).

But the Dunning–Kruger effect shows up in much more familiar situations. In team sports and computer games, players are often inclined to see defeats as caused by their teammates while also ignoring their own shortcomings. More importantly, the “we know better than experts” mindsets often appear in science and politics. In the UK, much about the Brexit debate focused on ignoring expert analysis and prognosis. “Britain has had enough of experts,” prominent pro-Brexit politicians often said.

Research has previously shown that this type of overconfidence is often associated with anti-vaccine attitudes and a propensity to vote in non-experts as policymakers. We’re seeing the effects of the Dunning-Kruger effect more and more in society, and the effects are concerning.

It’s important for researchers to be aware that the public analyzes information in a different way than scientists and look for optimized communication strategies. Otherwise, the gap between the scientific consensus and the popular belief can grow more and more.

There was an intriguing exception, however. This pattern did not emerge for attitudes and beliefs about climate change, researchers report.

The study was published in Nature Human Behavior.

Rice paddy.

GMO rice may hold the key to fighting HIV on the cheap

How’s that for internal conflict, eh, soccer moms?

Rice paddy.

A rice paddy in the Kerala province, India.
Image credits muffinn / Flickr.

An international team of researchers, with members from Spain, the U.S., and the U.K., plans to fight HIV using only cereal; namely, rice. In a new paper, they describe how they developed a strain of the plant that produces HIV-neutralizing proteins, and how the resulting rice can be used to prevent the spread of this disease.

Rice 2.0

“Our paper provides an approach for the durable deployment of anti-HIV agents in the developing world,” the team writes.

HIV isn’t the death sentence it used to be. Researchers and doctors have had quite a lot of success in developing treatments for people infected with HIV and — at least in more developed countries — death rates associated with HIV have declined significantly. The real prize is to develop a functional vaccine against the virus, an endeavor which has so far borne no fruit.

Still, since we don’t yet have such a vaccine ready, oral medication has been developed that can keep an infection at bay for a limited amount of time. However, such treatments are still expensive — prohibitively so for the many areas in third world countries that are struggling under high rates of HIV infection. Compounding the problem is that production of such drugs — involving a process known as recombinant protein manufacturing — is technologically-intensive and time-consuming, meaning that any production facilities these countries could put together wouldn’t come anywhere near to satisfying demand.

Here’s where the rice comes in. The strain engineered by the team synthesizes the same HIV-neutralizing compounds used in oral medication. Once the crop is fully grown, farmers can process the grains to make a topical cream and apply it to their skin — allowing these active compounds to enter the body. The rice plants produce one type of (monoclonal) antibody and two kinds of proteins that bind directly to the HIV virus (the lectins griffithsin and cyanovirin-N), preventing them from interacting with human cells.

“Simultaneous expression in the same plant allows the crude seed extract to be used directly as a topical microbicide cocktail, avoiding the costs of multiple downstream processes,” the team explains in their paper “This groundbreaking strategy is realistically the only way that microbicidal cocktails can be manufactured at a cost low enough for the developing world, where HIV prophylaxis is most in demand.”

Turning the seeds into cream is a very simple process, the team notes, allowing virtually anybody anywhere to have access to an HIV treatment option if required. It’s also virtually free once you have the rice. The team hopes that people living in areas with high rates of infection will simply grow as much of the rice as they need, potentially providing treatment for whole communities at a time.

However, there’s still work to be done before the GMO rice hits paddies around the world. The team wants to run an exhaustive battery of tests to ensure that their genetic machinations didn’t introduce genes for unknown (and potentially harmful) chemicals in the plants.

They’re also very much aware that GMOs are a subject of much debate, and their efforts might have to suffer from the controversy that has built around GM crops in recent years. There will also be regulatory hurdles to overcome in each part of the world where the rice might be grown and used.

The paper “Unexpected synergistic HIV neutralization by a triple microbicide produced in rice endosperm” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


UK millennials would happily sow, reap, and eat GMOs — unlike older generations

The majority of young adults in the UK say they’ve got no problems with GM crops and more tech in agriculture.


Image via Wikimedia.

Ah, GMOs, that horrible enemy that sends soccer moms scrambling for cover ever since the 1990s. According to a new poll, under-30s in the UK don’t share that view. In their eyes, GMO is a-ok, as is more technology and more futuristic techniques in farms.

Put it on m’plate!

The poll, carried out for the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC) to gauge public opinion following farmers’ calls for post-Brexit innovation, involved more than 1,600 participants aged 18 to 30. Two-thirds of responders said more technology in farming is a good thing and that they would support futuristic farming techniques — such as the use of drones in livestock and arable farming to monitor livestock, assess and spray crops — according to The Telegraph.

A similar number said they’d support more innovation, such as the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to improve crop security and yields.

Only 20% of responders expressed having any concern regarding GM crops or about the benefits that gene editing can bring to agriculture — a very stark contrast to older generations. A similar number said they’d object to the use of self-driving tractors on farms.

The poll was requested by the ABC as part of their drive to have the UK Government capitalize on novel technology over Brexit. Many of the measures have been previously proposed and blocked on the EU-level. Once the country leaves the bloc and resets its agricultural policy, however, it will be free to pursue such technology should it desire. Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, believes next-generation food and farming technology could reduce the impact of pests and diseases — helping keep the UK agricultural sector competitive amid the Brexit fallout.

“We are delighted to see young people embrace technology as part of the future of farming,” says Mark Buckingham, chair of the ABC.“Using cutting edge technology and growing techniques will enable the UK to deal with the serious challenges of keeping our farmers competitive, maintaining a safe, affordable food supply, and protecting our natural environment.



Scientists engineer crop that uses 25% less water without compromising yield

In the face of a rising populace, agriculture has to adapt by increasing yield, on one hand, and using resources more efficiently, on the other. Concerning the latter, British researchers have made a huge leap by breeding tobacco that uses 25 percent less water without compromising yield. The gene that they altered is present in all plants, so the improvements should be transferable to food crops.


Credit: Pixabay.

Biotech research has been very successful at improving yield over the past 60 years but not that much effort has been put into resource management. As such, the amount of water required to produce one unit of grain, for instance, has remained unchanged. About 90 percent of global freshwater is soaked up by agriculture, which puts a huge strain on reservoirs, with many being depleted unsustainably. Water scarcity will only continue to grow around the world, especially as climate change ramps up, which is why the latest study published by the international research project Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency, or RIPE for short, is so important.

The team led by RIPE Director Stephen Long targeted a photosynthetic protein called photosystem II subunit S (PsbS) in tobacco — a model crop often used in research because it’s easier to modify and faster to test than most crops. By increasing PsbS expression, a chloroplast-derived signal instructs the plant’s stomata to open less. Stomata are microscopic pores in the plant’s leaf which allow water to escape and gases (like CO2) to enter or exit. Essentially, PsbS is an important component of a signaling pathway that informs the plant how much sunlight is hitting its leaves. By increasing PsbS, the signal tells the plant that there is not enough light for the plant to trigger photosynthesis, causing stomata to close.

More resilient crops in the face of drought

Illustration of the mouth-like stomata which allows water and CO2 to exit and enter the plant. Credit: Jiayang Xie, Katarzyna Gowacka, Andrew D. B. Leakey.

Illustration of the mouth-like stomata which allows water and CO2 to exit and enter the plant. Credit: Jiayang Xie, Katarzyna Glowacka, Andrew D. B. Leakey.

By carefully tweaking PsbS expression, researchers were able to improve the ratio of carbon dioxide entering the plant to water escaping (water use efficiency) by 25 percent. The improvement demonstrated in field trials was achieved without sacrificing photosynthesis performance or yield. This was partly made possible by the fact that humans have increased the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere by 25 percent in just the past 70 years. The higher CO2 content allows plants to absorb enough of the gas without fully opening their stomata.

“The effects of the PsbS protein on the efficiency of photosynthetic CO2 uptake has been somewhat of an enigma in previous studies. We knew that PsbS improves protection against high light. Thus, what we expected to find is that overexpressing PsbS would help plants cope with too much light. Therefore, when we measured the decrease in water loss through the leaves, it was certainly somewhat unexpected, since no one had previously linked PsbS to water loss. But further exploration showed that it helps to explain several previous findings, in particular how leaf water loss through microscopic pores called stomata is coordinated with leaf CO2 uptake through these same pores,” Long told ZME Science in an e-mail.

“As far as we know, all higher plants contain this PsbS protein, which may suggest that this strategy (i.e. increased expression of PsbS) may be used to improve water use efficiency across a wide range of crops,” he added.

Stephen Long, a professor of crop sciences and of plant biology (center), with postdoctoral researchers Johannes Kromdijk, (left) and Katarzyna Glowacka, Credit: Brian Stauffer/University of Illinois.

Stephen Long, a professor of crop sciences and of plant biology (center), with postdoctoral researchers Johannes Kromdijk, (left) and Katarzyna Glowacka, Credit: Brian Stauffer/University of Illinois.

This is the first time that scientists have reported ‘hacking’ stomatal response to the quantity of light. Besides the quantity of light, stomata open and close in response to the quality of light (described in terms of shadow or contrast), humidity, and CO2 levels.

Long and colleagues built upon previous research, which showed that increasing PsbS and two other proteins can improve yield by as much as 20 percent. Combined with the present findings, the researchers hope to tweak crops for the perfect balance of yield and water management.

“We are further exploring how we can generate crops with increased photosynthetic CO2 uptake and reduced water loss. Using our results, we are also going to test how well our results in tobacco translate into different crop species,” Long told me.

“Water availability for agriculture is a strong limitation to food production world-wide. Reducing the freshwater demands for the production of our food production will be one of the biggest challenges to keep feeding the growing human population. Novel strategies like we describe in our paper are therefore encouraging, and also very much needed, especially since crop improvement is a slow process, with many tests and bottlenecks to pass before new innovations end up in farmers fields,” he concluded.

RISE is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, and the U.K. Department for International Development. The findings appeared in the journal Nature Communications. 

Are GMOs bad? Science says they’re safe

Credit: CIAT, Flickr.

Credit: CIAT, Flickr.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are hotly debated all around the world. Many people are very concerned about engineering crops and animals because of the long-term effect this might have on our planet and our bodies. It’s no wonder then that the opinions people have about GMOs are so polarizing.

The majority of foods in the United States can be classed as genetically modified food because they contain at least one genetically modified ingredient. The genetic modification most often involves introducing a desirable trait to a plant, such as increased resistance to pests, by inserting genes from a foreign organism, such as a bacteria. Many crops grown in the U.S., like most of the soybean, corn, cotton, and canola, are grown from genetically engineered seeds.

According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, “about half of Americans (48%) say the health effects of GM foods are no different than other foods, 39% say GM foods are worse for one’s health and one-in-ten (10%) say such foods are better for one’s health.” About one in six Americans are deeply concerned with GMOs and predominantly believe GM foods pose health risks.

What genetic modification is and how it works

Genes are bits of DNA which determine all sorts of traits and characteristics in any organism, from size to what chemicals certain cells express. Some genes offer traits that allow certain animals or plants to thrive in their environment, so these genes will be passed along. In time, with many generations, these genes will become common in the population. Our ancestors unwittingly sped up this process when they saved the seeds of the best crop plants to grow them next time, and the next, and the next.

That’s how tiny kernels on tall grass were turned into the juicy corn on the cob over 10,000 years of selection. With animals, we’ve “improved” or domesticated various species by selecting those individuals that had the best desirable qualities, from being compliant to our commands to yielding more milk. Here are a couple examples of wild vs selected crops.

Carrots were biennial plants, meaning they took two years to complete their biological cycle. They also used to be very thin and frail. Today, carrots are tasty orange roots that are an annual winter crop. Credit: Flickr, macleaygrassman / Flickr, adactio. 

Bananas were some of the first fruit that humans domesticated at around 8,000 B.C. Before human modification, bananas were tiny and filled with seeds. Credit: Wikipedia / Flickr, keepon.

Cabbage, broccoli, and kale all come from the same species, originally a wild mustard plant that is now often referred to as wild cabbage. The images speak for themselves. Credit: Wikipedia / Flickr, akaitor.

It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t love plump, juicy tomatoes. It’s even harder to picture how pathetic ancient tomatoes looked in comparison. These unmodified tomatoes were a lot smaller and darker, and resembled berries rather than the apple-shaped delight we all know today. Credit: Flickr, aris_gionis / Flickr, jeepersmedia.

So ever since the first hunter-gathers transitioned to a sedentary lifestyle, humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals around them by cross-breeding and selecting the most desirable traits in organisms.

However, the kind of modern genetic modification taking place today is different, in the sense that scientists can precisely target genes or set of genes. With selective breedings,  all the traits of the desirable animal or plant are passed on to the new offspring. But this also means you get a lot of ‘junk’ — traits that you don’t really need —  and the process takes a long time, over many breeding iterations, until you come up with the desired traits. Selective breeding also only works with organisms that are closely related, such as two varieties of corn.

To make a GM plant, scientists first isolate DNA from different organisms, which can be totally unrelated, such as bacteria, viruses, or even humans. Then, these genes are biochemically recombined in the lab to make a “gene construct”, which can consist of DNA from five to fifteen different organisms. The gene construct is then closed in bacteria so scientists have a lot of copies to work with. The isolated copies are inserted into embryonic plant tissue or migrated directly into plant tissue via a bacterium that acts as a vector. Ultimately, only a few plants out of hundreds will grow normally and exhibit the desired traits, like herbicide resistance, for instance.

Are GMOs safe?

Despite the public having polarized opinions on the safety of GMOs, scientists overwhelmingly agree that GMOs pose no hazard to consumers. In sharp contrast to public views about GMOs, 89% of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) believe genetically modified foods are safe, the Pew Research Center study found.

The AAAS scientists say that media hype can explain the huge gap in opinion about GMOs between their views and that of the public. About 79% of the scientists surveyed by Pew Research said that the media doesn’t distinguish between “well-founded” and “not well-founded” science. What’s more, 52% of the questioned scientists think that the media oversimplifies the science.

“There are several current efforts to require labeling of foods containing products derived from genetically modified crop plants, commonly known as GM crops or GMOs. These efforts are not driven by evidence that GM foods are actually dangerous. Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. Rather, these initiatives are driven by a variety of factors, ranging from the persistent perception that such foods are somehow “unnatural” and potentially dangerous to the desire to gain competitive advantage by legislating attachment of a label meant to alarm. Another misconception used as a rationale for labeling is that GM crops are untested,” reads an AAAS statement.

The AAAS also signed a joint statement that debunks claims from anti-GMO advocacy groups that suggest GM foods are less tested or nutritious than non-GM foods.

“Contrary to popular misconceptions, GM crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply. There are occasional claims that feeding GM foods to animals causes aberrations ranging from digestive disorders, to sterility, tumors and premature death. Although such claims are often sensationalized and receive a great deal of media attention, none have stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny. Indeed, a recent review of a dozen well-designed long-term animal feeding studies comparing GM and non-GM potatoes, soy, rice, corn and triticale found that the GM and their non-GM counterparts are nutritionally equivalent,” the AAAS said.

About 170.3 million hectares have been planted with genetically-engineered crops. Map by: National Academy of Sciences.

About 170.3 million hectares have been planted with genetically-engineered crops. Map by: National Academy of Sciences.

According to an exhaustive analysis of the current scientific literature on the subject (over 900 studies published in the last two decades), there is “no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops.” The 2016 study published in the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, also concludes that there is no conclusive evidence linking GMOs to environmental problems. 

The main takeaways from what’s perhaps the most comprehensive report so far are:

  • Genetically engineered (GE) crops are safe to consume. That’s to say, there is no evidence that suggests GM food harms human health, increases food allergies, affects the gastrointestinal tract, or poses any risk for horizontal gene transfer.
  • GE crops introduced in the food system today don’t increase crop yields directly. However, they protect yields from insects and weeds.
  • Herbicide-tolerant crops and those with Bt pesticide built in require less pesticide use.
  • Glyphosate use, the herbicide which GE crops can tolerate, has caused the adaptation of glyphosate-resistant weeds, which can cause farmers a lot of expensive problems.
  • There is no evidence pointing to adverse effects or danger to biodiversity from interbreeding GE crops with wild counterparts.
  • Farmers largely earn more from GE crops, but individual results vary.
  • Small-scale farmers may not see economic gains due to the price of seeds and difficulty accessing credit.
  • Regulation of food crops should be mandatory, but based on the characteristics of the crop, rather than the technique used to develop it, be it GE or non-GE.
  • GE debate should be transparent and with public participation.

While the committee concludes that “no differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health and safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts,” it did include a caveat in the report stating any food, GE or otherwise, “may have some subtle favorable or adverse health effects that are not detected even with careful scrutiny and that health effects can develop over time.”

GE crops are the most researched and tested agricultural products in history. In the United States, such products are tested time and time again for consumer and environmental safety by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. The same goes for the European Union which conducts tests through its own regulatory bodies. Every major scientific body in the world that has reviewed research on GMOs state that GMO production and sale is safe.

But despite this body of evidence, genetic engineering in agriculture will continue to be a topic debate for decades to come — and that might actually be a very good thing. Even though progress might be hindered, if GE foods are indeed harmful in some way, either to human health or the environment, they deserve the utmost scrutiny. However, at the end of the day, if you’re skeptical of GE food, you should also have this skepticism rooted in scientific consensus, rather than some debunked myth.  


Golden potatoes, last two on the right, are far richer in vitamins A and E. The new crop might one day fight off malnutrition in developing countries. Credit: Mark Failla.

New ‘Golden’ Potato packed with Vitamin A and E could fight malnutrition in developing nations

Scientists have genetically engineered a strain of yellow-orange potato that contains copious amounts of vitamin A and vitamin E. The so-called ‘golden’ potato is intended to cover the nutritional needs of people living in developing countries.

Golden potatoes, last two on the right, are far richer in vitamins A and E. The new crop might one day fight off malnutrition in developing countries. Credit: Mark Failla.

Golden potatoes, last two on the right, are far richer in vitamins A and E.
The new crop might one day fight off malnutrition in developing countries. Credit: Mark Failla.

A single serving of golden potato (150 grams) provides 42% of a child’s recommended daily intake of vitamin A and 34% of the recommended intake of vitamin E. The same serving provides 15% of the recommended vitamin A and 17% of recommended vitamin E for women of reproductive age, scientists report in the journal PLOS ONE.

It is estimated that at least 3.1 million children die each year and 161 million have stunted growth due to malnutrition. While it’s true food scarcity is a problem, even in situations where food is plentiful, it often lacks the necessary vitamins and minerals people need to live a healthy life. Deficiencies in iron, iodine, zinc, folic acid, and vitamin A are among the most common, with almost half the world’s population suffering from one or more deficiencies

After rice, wheat, and corn, the potato is the fourth most popular food crop in the world. Peru, the ancient land of the Incas, is where the first domesticated potatoes were grown about 7,000 years ago. Today, in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador alone, farmers grow some 4,000 varieties of potato, some of which can sprout in surprisingly barren conditions. In fact, scientists are experimenting with farming potatoes in Mars-like conditions, just like in The Martian. Among the ages, its resilience and high nutritional value have made the potato into a key staple crop.

There are multiple ways to obtain necessary micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Micronutrients can be obtained through a varied diet rich in fruits and vegetables or through supplements. Staple food fortification adds micronutrients to commonly eaten foods. Biofortified crops are bred or engineered to produce micronutrients. Credit: Harvard University.

There are multiple ways to obtain necessary micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Micronutrients can be obtained through a varied diet rich in fruits and vegetables or through supplements. Staple food fortification adds micronutrients to commonly eaten foods. Biofortified crops are bred or engineered to produce micronutrients. Credit: Harvard University.

In many developing nations, people’s diets are comprised of food deficient in essential vitamins. Potatoes are particularly popular in Asian, African, and South American countries, where there is also the highest incidence of vitamin A and vitamin E deficiencies. Vitamin A is vital for a healthy immune system, vision, growth, and reproductive health. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness in children. Vitamin E protects the body from damage to the nerves, muscles, vision, or the immune system.

A potato serving already contains half your daily value of vitamin C and is also rich in vitamin B6. Scientists at Ohio State University and the Italian National Agency for New Technologies just made a huge upgrade. Using metabolic engineering — the manipulation of plant genes in the lab — the international team of researchers added carotenoids in the tuber, which are essential nutrients for many animals and humans. The fat-soluble pigments are also the ones that provide the yellow, red, and orange colors to fruits and vegetables, hence the ‘golden’ potato.

This golden potato joins the ranks of other GMO vitamin-enhancing crops such as Golden Rice, one of the first big steps forward in fighting vitamin-A deficiency,

“More than 800,000 people depend on the potato as their main source of energy, and many of these individuals are not consuming adequate amounts of these vital nutrients,” explained senior study investigator Mark Failla, Ph.D., professor emeritus of human nutrition at Ohio State. “These golden tubers have far more vitamin A and vitamin E than white potatoes, and that could make a significant difference in certain populations where deficiencies—and related diseases—are common.”

The golden potato is, for the time being, not commercially available. Researchers who continue to experiment on the GMO crop, looking for new strategies that may further boost nutritional value, based on the different requirements countries around the world have. It might take many years before a golden potato reaches people’s plates if the same negative public reactions befell this GMO crop as was the case with Golden Rice. 

“[There’s a] hidden hunger—deficiencies in micronutrients—has been a problem for decades in many developing countries because staple food crops were bred for high yield and pest resistance rather than nutritional quality. This golden potato would be a way to provide a much more nutritious food that people are eating many times a week, or even several times a day,” Failla said.


The U.S. public doesn’t trust scientists over GMO foods, Pew report says

Are GMOs winning the fight for Americans’ holiday meals? A new Pew Research Center report picks the public’s collective brain on the issue.


Image credits Pineapple Supply Co. / Pexels.

Like them or hate them, the one thing we can all agree about GMOs is that they’re controversial. The debate around them is so heated that it’s surprising they don’t spontaneously cook themselves into GMO meals on-shelf. Scientists, as a group, are all for them — they could solve a lot of problems, such as combat drought and reduce CO2 emissions from agriculture while feeding more mouths than before — so there’s a need for them. With the FDA approval of modified salmon farming last year, there is also a precedent. But until people are actually willing to eat these crops and animals, farmers won’t be able to start growing them. So how do the people of America feel about GMOs?

Well, the Pew Research Center has just the answer (and it’s a very comprehensive one): a 99-page strong report on the attitudes toward genetic modification, organic food, and the importance of eating healthy. And on the off-chance you’re not looking forward to reading a report for the next two days or so, here’s the highlights from their survey.

There are no clear-drawn groups

There’s a lot of mixed opinions on GMOs. To make things even more complicated, there aren’t clear groups of people all believing the same things about the issue. For example, 18% of respondents said that their main interest was in eating healthy and nutritious food. Some 16% said they care about genetically modified foods “a whole lot”. But these are not the same people. Only about a third of those in the first category also fall into the latter. Almost half the respondents (46%) say that they care about the issue of GMOs “not too much” or “not at all.”

And whether someone wants to eat healthily doesn’t seem to make him or her more likely to believe that GMOs are bad for people — which is usually what critics shell out at the stuff even though it’s complete, if fully organic, baloney. One visible link identified by the study is that which develops between attitudes about healthy eating and organic food. Those who reported their “main focus” was on healthy eating were three times as likely to eat organic food compared with those who consider healthy eating “not at all important.”

Views about GMOs and their effect on health, as well as the health qualities of organic food didn’t vary much between men and women, or between rich and poor — with one exception; unsurprisingly, rich people did actually buy more organic food, and they did so more regularly.

And lastly, people aren’t “against GMO” per se as much as they’re “pro-organic“, which is to say that some three-quarters of respondents said they bought local food recently, and two-thirds saying they had purchased organic food. Only 44% reported they’d recently purchased food labeled as “GMO-free”.

Political affiliation doesn’t play a role in what food you like

Red or Blue, both sides of the political spectrum had roughly the same views on food. Republicans and Democrats feel that GMOs are worse for your health in about equal shares (39% R vs 40% D). This result comes in stark contrast to Pew’s results on climate change says Cary Funk, the Pew Research Center’s associate director of research on science and society. Here, Republicans are more likely to consider it a natural event or dismiss it altogether, while liberal Democrats are much more likely to believe that humans are responsible. The only polarization the survey found is that more Democrats think organic food is healthier, with 60% vs 50% of Republicans. Still, it’s a very narrow difference.

There was consensus on one point: 72% of respondents said healthy eating habits are paramount to a long and healthy life. An additional 25% said it’s “somewhat important”. Most, however (58%) also say they fall short of their goals and that “most days I probably should be eating healthier.”

But probably most troubling is the next point.

Most of Americans don’t give two modified beans about what scientists think about GMOs.

39 percent of the respondents believe that GMOs are worse for your health than non-GM food, flying in the face of pretty much all of scientific literature. From those 16% that said they care about the GM foods issue “a great deal”, three-quarters think GMOs are bad for your health. More than 50% of respondents think that “about half or fewer” of scientists agree that GM foods are safe. Only a tiny 14% think that “almost all” scientists agree that GM foods are safe to eat — which they do.

Americans also don’t really trust scientists on the issue. The survey revealed that Americans feel researchers are influenced by the best available scientific evidence, a desire to help their industries, and desire to advance their careers. They also feel that these factors are put ahead of the public’s best interest. There’s a silver lining, though! The public still trusts scientists more than politicians, the survey found — 60% say they want scientists to play a major role in setting up policies regarding GM food, while only 24% would want elected officials to work through the issue. That’s a kind of victory, though truth be told, who among us really trusts politicians?

Still, the main takeaway from this is that people should definitely start trusting GMOs more than their politicians.


Canadian Food Agency approves the sale of Simplot’s Innate potato in Canada

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CIFA) and Health Canada have approved Simplot’s genetically engineered Innate potato for sale throughout the country. The first generation of Innate potatoes have passed food safety assessments, and are considered as just as safe and healthy as unaltered spuds.

The Innate potato has been approved for sale in Canada.
Image credits go to Wikimedia user McKay Savage

The Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Company can start selling their Gen.1 Innate potatoes in Canada starting this year, CIFA and Health Canada have decided in two letters addressed to the company on March 18. The tatters already received regulatory approvals in the U.S. last year and are sold under the White Russet brand.

Innate potatoes have the same nutritional composition as the regular variety, with the company citing reduced browning or bruising of their product compared to unaltered tubers, as well as lower levels of carcinogens when cooked.

“Our potato cuts acrylamide up to 62 percent and a future generation will take up to 90 percent, making it virtually negligible, which is a really big deal in the potato world,” says Director Doug Cole, Marketing and Communications, Simplot.

Simplot was able to reduce bruising and browning of their potatoes by up to 44% by grafting genes from more resistant species, such as Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and Atlantic variety into their genetic make-up. Their potatoes also produce less polyphenol oxidase, which leaks from damaged plastids in bruised or cut potatoes, causing darkening and in black spot.

This doesn’t seem like a big improvement until you consider how much food we usually throw out due to these effects.

“Consumers throw away about 30 percent of their potatoes either due to bruising or sprouting, so we’ve solved the bruising problem,” says Cole.

This genetic construct also lowers the expression of native genes that govern the production of asparagine and starch to reduce sugar conversion. Lower levels of these substances limit the potential for acrylamide formation when the potatoes are cooked at temperatures higher than 120 degrees Celsius (248 degrees Fahrenheit) — such as in frying, baking or broiling. Based on studies on rats, the U.S. National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have identified acrylamide as a probable human carcinogen — although other studies found differences in acrylamide absorption speed between humans and rats.

They’re also easier to farm, and less wasteful. Simplot stated that that if all Canadian fresh Russet potato crops had the traits of Innate, we could reduce waste at the field, storage, packing, retail and food-service levels by some 400 million kilograms. Carbon dioxide emissions would be cut by 30 million kilograms (66.1 million pounds), water usage reduce by 5.6 billion liters, and 15,000 fewer pesticide hectare-applications would be needed, the company said.

This is bound to be a controversial decision. But all these traits led Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of United Potato Growers of Canada, to believe that Innate will attract a lot of commercial interests in the future, as it makes growing, cooking and storing much easier. Farmers are already supportive of CIFA’s decision, welcoming it as a step forward.

“This is the reality: we need to use these technologies to help feed the world in a better way with less waste and less risk of carcinogenic effects,” Ontario potato producer Peter VanderZaag said.

Health Canada doesn’t require for Innate potatoes to be labeled as “genetically engineered”. In the U.S., food packaging has to include details about the product’s website and a QR code for consumer information.



According to Simplot

Reactions to FDA approving genetically engineered salmon

A few days ago, the FDA approved the genetic engineering of modified Atlantic salmon variety. This is the first food animal that was genetically modified that the FDA approved for human consumption and farming; the gene alteration would make it grow much faster. Public reactions have been mixed, as expected. This could be a very good move, greatly reducing the stress on wild populations, but people are always reluctant when it comes to GMOs – especially animals.


Reactions have been interesting from the scientific community as well – and generally positive. Dr. Garth Fletcher, Professor Emeritus and Head of the Department of Ocean Sciences at the Memorial University of Newfoundland hailed it as a laudable achievement:

“This approval is good news for all academic researchers interested in genetic modification of animals being bred for human consumption. The pioneering efforts of AquaBounty working with FDA regulatory authorities has demonstrated that with care, good science, and patience, innovative research in this somewhat controversial field can be taken from the laboratory bench to the market place.”

Mark Abrahams, Dean of Science & Professor, Department of Biology / Ocean Sciences, Memorial University of Newfoundland has been more circumspect, but still positive:

“In my opinion, the review process undertaken by the FDA has been extremely thorough so I think it reasonable to assume that the conclusions they have drawn and the recommendations they have made are well supported by the evidence. From that perspective there is no evidence that these fish pose a risk to human health but time will tell whether they will be accepted by consumers.”

But Dr. Anne Kapuscinski, Professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College was a bit more circumspect.

“This approval shows us how the FDA will apply the drug law to more applications to farm genetically engineered salmon. More applications are coming because this first approval applies to a small farm in Panama that will barely make a dent in the global market of farmed salmon. I see incremental improvement in how the FDA applied science in the environmental assessment, but I don’t see the scientific quality required to assess many larger applications.”

Indeed, this is a valid point – what kind of a difference can this make on a global (or even regional) scale for fish populations? Perhaps even more importantly, how does that compare to the risk of the fish escaping in the wild?

“This worries me because the drug law forces the FDA to keep secret a genetically engineered animal’s environmental assessment unless the applicant wants it to be public. The environmental impact of this GE salmon approval hinges on keeping it from getting out into nature. The FDA concluded it is environmentally safe because the hatchery in Canada and farming operation in Panama have multiple, complex barriers to escape, but it will be a real challenge to scale up this approach to many and larger salmon farms. This is why my comments to the FDA urged for a quantitative analysis of possible failures in the confinement measures, which are easy to do for this application. I urged the FDA to model the scientific rigor the agency will expect in future applications. The FDA seems to have read my advice but chose to interpret it very narrowly and decided to not require a quantitative failure mode analysis.”

But perhaps the more important thing about this decision is not that it allows the development of genetically modified salmon, but that it creates a precedent. Although breeders have selectively bread their animals for centuries, this is the first time a direct genetic modification has been approved. Eric Hallerman, Professor of Fish Conservation, Virginia Tech University highlights this point:

“This approval follows extensive review of food safety and environmental safety under the authority of the U.S. Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act. The action allows pilot-scale production at these specific facilities, which will be critical for quantifying the economics of production and the efficacy of confinement. Yet, the significance of the action is that it marks the first approval globally for production of genetically modified animals for purposes of food production and sale.”

But he also underlines another interesting aspect – that of labeling.

“Today’s action is significant for another reason, as FDA also announced draft guidance on the voluntary labelling of food derived from the product. Much controversy has focused on whether and how foods derived from biotechnology should be labelled. While studies have shown that salmon products derived from the AquAdvantage salmon are no different from those derived from conventional production, some consumers have argued for a ‘right to know’ how food products were produced.”



Yeast chromosome engineered from scratch: creating cretures in a lab

In a huge breakthrough in synthetic biology, scientists at Johns Hopkins University have engineered from scratch a yeast chromosome. This is the first time scientists have been able to assemble a chromosome from a creature as complicated as a yeast, namely a prokaryrite. The implications of this research are far and wide. For one, the developments at Johns Hopkins provide an invaluable learning tool and launching platform for future research in synthetic biology. More immediate applications include the biofuel industry and of course beer.

Humans have been growing yeast for practical purposes ever since they figured out how to brew beer and bake bread thousands of years ago. Through selective breeding and close manipulation, mankind has been essentially engineering yeast for a long time. This time, however, the researchers led by Jef Boeke have gone the extra mile and genetically engineering an entire organism (the yeast) from scratch.

Yeast 2.0

Their work involved designing and writting a code made up of roughly 11 million letters of DNA—the As, Cs, Gs, and Ts that write the book of life. This code was synthesized and subbed in for a yeast’s natural DNA, thus obtaining a brewer’s yeast’s DNA with a completely altered  chromosome. Chromosomes are organized structures of DNA and proteins that are found in cells. A chromosome is a singular piece of DNA, which contains many genes, regulatory elements and other nucleotide sequences. Chromosomes vary extensively between different organisms. The DNA molecule may be circular or linear, and can contain anything from tens of kilobase pairs to hundreds of megabase pairs. Typically eukaryotic cells (cells with nuclei) have large linear chromosomes and prokaryotic cells (cells without defined nuclei) have smaller circular chromosomes, although there are many exceptions to this rule.

For instance, each human cell contains 23 chromosome pairs, for a total of 46. The man-made yeast chromosome represents about three percent of all of the DNA that makes a yeast.

“Yeasts have 16 chromosomes, and we’ve just completed chromosome 3,” Boeke says. “Now it’s just a matter of money and time.”

In 2010, the J. Craig Venter Institute reported a landmark advancement in synthetic biology, after scientists there built all of the DNA for a bacteria from scratch. Yeasts are one level up bacteria, however. While they’re both single-celled organisms, yeasts are eukaryotic, in the same group as plants and humans, while bacteria are eukaryotic, similar to the very first living things that formed on Earth billions of years ago.

“The synthesis and design of the first eukaryotic chromosome is obviously an exciting milestone,” says Farren Isaacs, a cell biologist at Yale University who was not involved in Boeke’s team. “Eukaryotic” refers to the grouping of life that yeast belong to.

Genetically modified organisms have come a long way in recent years, but while researchers have concentrated their efforts on designing organisms marginally similar to those born from pure evolution, adding or deleting just a couple of genes here and there, the new yeast is proof of an entirely new organism, engineered from scratch.


So their beer yeast isn’t just some carbon copy of nature, but an entirely new one – an improved version, some may say. A lot of DNA was trimmed down, parts of redundant or unnecessary segments of code called “junk DNA”. The researchers even added some stretches of DNA that give the chromosome a latent superpower that doesn’t come into play unless it’s triggered.  “It’s almost akin to being able to trigger evolution,” Isaacs says.

To test if the synthetic version with the cut out chromosome III can support yeast life, the researchers simply added the chromosome back into the yeast from which the natural version was removed. In the lab, the hybrid grew and reproduced just like its cousins.  “It looks like it, it behaves like it, it smells like it,” Boeke says. “Basically, you wouldn’t know the difference unless you take the next step and introduce what we call the genome scrambling system into it.”

There’s been a lot of talk about junk DNA, however. For instance, it’s been found before that what scientists used to call redundant genetic code turned out to be pretty useful. It’s just that some code becomes active only in particular situations. It could be that if yeast is subjected to particular environmental stimuli, like a specific temperature or pressure, it may not survive or behave differently than its natural brethren. If this happens, then it may be for the better since it would show that the cut-out genes actually do something providing an excellent learning tool.

“So what we’re doing is, in some sense, a risky business,” Boeke says. “There’s not a flag on each segment saying ‘this one’s not important’. It’s really a judgment call at a certain stage.” Luckily, yeasts, like fruit flies and mice, are one of the best-understood organisms in all biology, so the scientists relied on a huge genetic database to guide them. “But if we make a mistake, as we’ve found in some of our unpublished work, the penalty could be a dead yeast,” he says. “So we were pretty conservative.”

The future of beer

Yeast is an important component in brewing and in most beers, it’s responsible for the dominant flavour. Some yeasts make for a good flavour, but they ferment too little alcohol, which can be frustrating for research scientists at breweries. A modified synethic yeast could solve many issues. But would you drink a genetically modified beer? Some brands stay away from GMO hops because they offer their consumers all-natural flavour. So a more likely candidate for synethic yeast may be the biofuel industry where GMO corn ethanol is widely produced.

Findings appeared in the journal Science.


11 year old gives remarkable TED talk about GMO foods

Birke Baehr is only 11 years old, but he gave one of the best TED talks I’ve seen in a while. Here’s “What’s Wrong With Our Food System? And How Can We Make A Difference?”

At age 9, while traveling with his family and being “roadschooled,” Birke Baehr began studying sustainable and organic farming practices such as composting, vermiculture, canning and food preservation. As he explains, he also found his other passion – educating others.

birke baehr

GM ‘hybrid’ fish poses threat to natural populations

A study has shown that genetically modified salmon that breed with wild trout can produce a fast-growing, competitive fish that not only screws around with the local ecosystem, but because it also alters the fish genome in ways which cannot be anticipated.

Two same-age salmon, a GM salmon, rear, and a non-GM salmon, foreground. Photograph: Anonymous/AP

Two same-age salmon, a GM salmon, rear, and a non-GM salmon, foreground. Photograph: Anonymous/AP

What do you get when you cross a genetically modified salmon and wild brown trout? Well, something which is much faster growing and competitive than each of his parents and non GMO cousins. In the study, a natural environment was simulated, and the offspring suppressed the growth of GM salmon by 82% and wild salmon by 54% when all competed for food in a simulated stream.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of environmental impacts of hybridisation between a GM animal and a closely related species,” wrote the scientists from Memorial University of Newfoundland. “These findings suggest that complex competitive interactions associated with transgenesis and hybridisation could have substantial ecological consequences for wild Atlantic salmon should they ever come into contact [with GM salmon] in nature.”

Study lead author, Krista Oke, said:

“These results emphasise the importance of stringent regulations to ensure GM animals do not escape into nature.”

Salmon and brown trout are closely related anyway and can create hybrids, though usually less than 1% of offspring are hybrids. But these natural hybrids are not really perturbing the environment, unlike the offspring which come from GMO fish.

The study raises more questions and concerns about genetically modified organisms altering ecosystems. But here’s another take on the problem: during millions and billions of evolution, nature has created a complex, specialized, sustainable genetic system of species. If genetically modified organisms start swimming in the gene pool, and contaminate it with human created genes, we don’t really know what will happen. We don’t even know the direct effects, let alone the indirect ramifications. These genes will forever remain in the gene pool, there is nothing we will be able to do to remove them – and we have no idea what effects this will have. There’s some food for thought.