Over the past several weeks, I’ve written posts here at Our Modern Plagues elaborating on my feature about GMOs in Popular Science’s July issue. In this final GMO post (for now, anyway), I’d like to show you a wider range of potential uses for agricultural biotechnology.
The vast majority of GMOs on the market right now are either insecticide-resistant or herbicide-tolerant commodity crops including corn, cotton, and soy, and they’re tied to big biotechnology companies such as Monsanto. These products were designed with farmers in mind, who rely on pesticides—among other tools—to protect their crops from pests. But there are other uses for the tech, too, that could have benefits for consumers, the environment, and human health.
A lot has been written about some of these projects already, so rather than write a lengthy explanation for each, I provide a summary and link(s) to recommended reading.
One of the most famous examples of a non-pesticide GMO is the Rainbow papaya in Hawaii. Scientists led by Dennis Gonsalves engineered the papaya to be resistant to ringspot virus, which threatened the fruit across the state in the 1990s (as in, it could have wiped out the crop entirely). To learn more, I recommend Paul Voosen’s “Crop Savior Blazes Biotech Trail, but Few Scientists or Companies Are Willing to Follow,” which he wrote for Greenwire/The New York Times in 2011 (note: while Gonsalves invented the Rainbow papaya, some of the technology was licensed by Monsanto).
Worldwide, a bacterium called Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus threatens citrus trees with a disease called citrus greening. The bacteria spread by an insect called the Asian citrus psyllid, and trees are usually treated with pesticide in order to control the pest and thus to curb the illness. Researchers at the University of Florida (among others) are working to genetically engineer oranges to withstand infection, which could not only save the orange crop, but also decrease the amount of insecticide used on citrus farms. To learn more, I recommend Amy Harmon’s “A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA,” which published in the NYT last year.
This project attempts to fortify bananas with beta-carotene—the precursor to vitamin A—in order to help get the nutrient to people in regions where vitamin A deficiency is common and bananas are a staple. The research is out of Queensland University of Technology in Australia and partially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The bananas are currently being tested in Iowa. To learn more, here is a recent story by Dan Charles at NPR: “Globe-Trotting GMO Bananas Arrive for Their First Test in Iowa.” (Another beta-carotene GMO project, dubbed golden rice, has been met with controversy. Here’s another piece by Amy Harmon from the NYT on the topic).
Researchers in Michigan are trying to genetically modify silkworms to produce spider silk, which is notoriously strong but, so far, has been impossible to mass-produce. If all goes according to plan, the material could help make protective and fire-resistant gear for soldiers. To learn more, check out Jordan Golson’s recent post at Wired: “Fire-Resistant Underwear Made From Fake Spider Silk Could Soon Be a Thing.”
The American chestnut used to be common in the US, but starting around the early 1900s, the trees were infected by a fungus inadvertently introduced by imported Japanese chestnut tree (the Japanese tree was immune to the fungus, which causes the disease chestnut blight; the American variety was not). Researchers at the State University of New York have used genetic engineering to get a version of the American chestnut that is virtually geneticially the same as its predecessor, but unable to contract blight. To learn more, I recommend Ferris Jabr’s story from last March, which appeared in Scientific American: “A New Generation of American Chestnut Trees May Redefine America’s Forest.”
The egg industry only needs female chickens to keep business going, so male chicks are typically killed after they hatch. It’d be a lot more humane and less expensive to sex the eggs and then destroy them before hatching, but there’s currently no way to do that. Researchers at Charles Sturt University in Australia are working on genetically engineered chickens that give birth to more females than males, as well as another line modified with green fluorescent protein, which would cause a chick to glow under a UV light. Females in the eggs would glow, while males wouldn’t. To learn more, read this opinion piece by Nigel Urwin, one of the researchers on the project, from earlier this year in the Guardian: “Would you prefer to eat genetically modified eggs, or see day-old chicks destroyed?“
This list is far from complete, so if you have more interesting examples, please add them in the comments. I know there are a lot of projects attempting to make drought- and flood-resistant plant varieties, for example, and I haven’t included any of those. And as with all of the blog posts here at Our Modern Plagues, there are two rules for the comments: be civil and stay on topic.