Catherine Freed: Expanding our genetic toolbox
The nuts and bolts of enhancing crop sustainability
As consumers, we are constantly faced with making many decisions when it comes to purchasing food. There is a lot to consider when reading the nutritional facts, distribution information, and important warnings tightly crammed onto small food labels. You’ve most likely noticed a “non-GMO,” “contains GMO products” or “GMO-free” label among these. Many shoppers are concerned when they see these three letters and search for another product without the GMO label. It’s a no brainer that we want to make the best possible decisions when it comes to the food we buy and feed our families. Is it really safe to consume GMOs or food products containing them? The short answer is yes! But let’s get deeper into the issue.
“GMO” and “genetic modifications” are words that get tossed around every day and yet it’s hard for many to find a clear cut answer as to what they actually mean. With all the strong opinions and conflicting articles circulating around social media sites, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed and lost in a sea of information. Essentially, a genetically modified organism (GMO) is a plant, animal, or bacteria that has had its genome artificially altered through the addition of a gene found from another organism. This definition leads to more questions. Genes? Genomes? What even are those?
1Genes are like small pieces of information that code for specific traits in all living organisms. All genes in one organism make up the genome which can be easily compared to a blue print for a house. You wouldn’t be able to build a house without knowing how much material you needed to build the kitchen or where which room the bathtub fits in. The same is true for all living organisms. The genome contains all the information necessary for the development and placement of specific organs, timing for which specific metabolic processes should take place, as well as all the features that make each and every living organism so unique.
Now that we know what genes, and genomes are, another question you may have been asking yourself is why should scientists bother altering the genome? Especially since humanity seems to have done just fine with traditional plant breeding as this is a seemingly natural method of selecting for desirable traits. In actuality, traditional breeding is quite similar to genetically modifying plants as both methods randomly alter the plant’s genome. For centuries, farmers have been altering the genetics of plants by breeding plants which to get bigger fruit and plants, healthier crops, and higher crop yields. This process of selecting for optimal traits is not natural at all! In fact, most all fruits, vegetables, and other plant products found in stores are not as they were originally found in the wild.
Breeding has been extremely important for providing nutritious food and enhancing food security however it falls short when it comes to time and specificity. It takes many years to find plants predispositioned for and breed them to have specific traits. As plants are sessile organism, unable to move in times of flooding or drought, flee from predators, and walk around to find their food, they are subject to a variety of factors that decrease growth, yield, and viability.
Gene editing is an attractive tool for enhancing crop blue prints as it allows for the addition of specific genes to confer desired traits. The possibilities for selecting and adding these genes to improve crop health and yield are endless. As a graduate student beginning her Ph.D. in Biochemistry, I can have seen firsthand the powerful effects that gene editing have to offer. I am currently working at a laboratory in Virginia Tech to understand how plants are able to sense and use phosphate in their environment. The plants that I am working with are GMOs. They have had specific genes added to their genome and are now better able to grow on soil with super low nutrients. Studying and understanding what allows these plants to grow under extremely low nutrients will be especially important for creating crops for nations and farmers who do not have access to chemical fertilizers.
It is of utmost importance that scientists and engineers utilize a variety of tools in order to enhance food security and sustainable crops worldwide. Genetic editing, while seemingly scary, is in reality an invaluable tool which will allow us to design and create new crops to meet specific needs. Like a mechanic has a variety of tools in their tool box, scientists also need multiple tools and strategies when it comes to tackling complex global problems. It would be ridiculous to use a flat head screwdriver for a job that required a hammer. Therefore, consumers, scientists, and farmers alike all must work together to understand gene editing and the possibilities for enhancing the global food supply and food security.