So what will the Frankenfoods crowd have to whine and moan about if science can genetically alter food crop plants to achieve improved growth/production characteristics without introducing DNA from alternate species into those plants?
That may well be in the future of plant genetics — a process called genome editing.
With the daunting name Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, or CRISPR-Cas9 for short, scientists at the IBS Center for Genome Engineering in South Korea say they can genetically modify plants without adding DNA. The resulting genome-edited plants look just like the genetic variations that occur from selective breeding techniques plant geneticists and farmers have been using for many generations.
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Jin-Soo Kim, director of the IBS center, says the results are “indistinguishable from naturally-occurring genetic variation.”
In scientist-speak, as reported by the Institute for Basic Science and Science Daily, “purified Cas9 protein was mixed with sgRNAs, targeting specific genes from three plant species to form pre-assembled ribonucleoproteins … to transfect several different plants, including tobacco, lettuce, and rice, to achieve targeted mutagenesis in protoplasts.”
They were, the report says, “able to definitively show that Cas9 RNPs can be used to genetically modify plants,” which Jin-So Kim says “paves the way for the widespread use of RNA-guided genome editing in plant biotechnology and agriculture.”
This could be revolutionary for the future of the seed industry, they say, by enabling production of plants that are heartier and more suited to climate change. In addition, it’s cheaper, faster, and more accurate than previous breeding techniques, such as radiation-induced mutations.
The process is ready for use in food crops such as tomatoes and lettuce, the scientists say, and the gene editing technique “could be the next step in ending food shortages.
A recent Pew Research Center survey shows only 37 percent of the public believes GM foods are safe — that’s in stark contrast to the 88 percent of scientists who say they pose not the slightest health consequence to humans. Because no DNA is used in the CRISPR-Cas9 process, the resulting genome-edited plants may get a warmer reception by a wary public, the scientists suggest.
Chances are, though, there will still be those whose minds can’t accept this even more benign natural process.