Introducing animal genes into common crops has allowed scientists to vastly increase their yields and make them more drought-resistant, according to a new study.
A consortium of researchers from the US and China manipulated the ribonucleic acid, or RNA, from potato and rice plants by adding a gene called FTO.
In humans, FTO has been linked to obesity – in the crops it led to them growing three times larger and producing three times the yield.
When they tried it in real field tests, the vegetables grew 50 percent more mass and yielded 50 percent more plants.
In addition to growing significantly larger, the plants increased their rate of photosynthesis and produced longer root systems, making them more drought resistant.
The study, published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, adds another wrinkle to the ongoing debate over GM foods.
“The change is really dramatic,” said study co-author Chuan He, a chemical biologist at the University of Chicago in a statement. “In addition, it has worked with almost every type of plant we’ve tried so far, and it’s a very easy adjustment to make.”
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Scientists split potatoes with the FTO gene (below), resulting in vegetables that were 50 percent larger. They insist the process could be an important solution to food insecurity and climate change
Nobel Prize-winning economist Michael Kremer, who was not involved in the study, suggested in the university’s statement that the process “could help address issues of poverty and food insecurity on a global scale — and potentially be helpful in responding to climate change.” . .’
In 2011, He’s lab determined that RNA molecules in mammals don’t just blindly follow a DNA blueprint — they can even regulate which genes are expressed and which aren’t, via chemical markers that determine which proteins are made and how many.
He and Guifang Jia, a molecular engineer at Peking University in China, wanted to explore how that would affect plant biology.
FTO is known to erase some of the chemical markers on RNA that control genetic instructions – the researchers believe that, when introduced into the crops, it ‘muffles’ some signals telling them to reduce growth.
Pictured: An RNA gene-edited rice plant (far right) compared to untreated samples. The split crops are not only larger, but also have longer roots, making them more drought resistant
In the photo: a farmer harvests potatoes in Gaza City
After seeing results with rice plants, they tried it with potatoes, part of an unrelated family of plants, and the result was just as impressive.
“That suggested a degree of universality that was extremely exciting,” said Professor He. “We depend on plants for many, many things — from wood, food and medicine to flowers and oil — and this may provide a way to increase the stock material we can get from most plants.”
The impressive results include splitting FTO at a factory, rousing the hairs of animal rights defenders.
“These researchers may just be robbing vegetable growers of their main market — vegans and vegetarians who avoid bits and pieces of animals in their food,” PETA senior vice president Kathy Guillermo told DailyMail.com.
But Professor He believes that ultimately the same results can be achieved without adding animal genes.
Critics complain that genetically modifying food can have unintended consequences for both the environment and human consumers. Although the new research involved splicing an animal gene in vegetable crops, the scientists believe they can refine the process “using the plant’s existing genetics.”
‘This is an entirely new type of approach, one that may be different from GMO gene editing and CRISPR; this technique allows us to ‘turn a bud’ in the plants at an early stage of development, which continues to affect the plant’s food production even after we remove the bud,” he said.
‘It seems that plants already have this regulatory layer, and we just took advantage of it. So the next step would be to discover how you can do that with the existing genetics of the plant.’
Professor He imagines other benefits of accumulating flora beyond the largest harvests.
“Maybe we can develop grasses in endangered areas that can withstand drought,” he said. “We could teach a tree in the Midwest to grow longer roots, so it’s less likely to topple in violent storms. There are so many possible applications.’
WHY ARE PEOPLE CONCERNED ABOUT GENE-EDITED ‘FRANKENSTEIN FOODS’?
“Frankenstein foods” are crops or meats produced through genetic engineering.
In plants and farm animals, genes have been altered or deleted to make them more resistant to certain diseases and pests, or to grow unnaturally.
To make these changes, viral DNA is used to alter genes, causing health problems in some groups.
A number of people feel that the long-term effects of genetically modified (GM) foods on human health are still insufficiently understood.
According to the UK-based Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCB): ‘Current evidence from safety assessments of GM crops does not suggest significant risks to people who eat them.’
The foods also pose environmental problems, as GM crops can reduce the variety of plants and wildlife, known as biodiversity.
The transfer of genes between modified and unmodified plants can also lead to unexpected consequences, for example an irreversible or uncontrollable ‘escape’ of genes to neighboring wild plants through pollen.
The NCB says: ‘We are not convinced that possible negative results of gene flow in some areas are sufficient to exclude the planting of GM crops elsewhere in developing countries.’