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Rapid Changes in GMO Technology

The MIT Technology Review is on my regular “must read” list of magazines that I subscribe to. Every issue contains articles that challenge my current knowledge and insights into how the world is changing.

The first issue of 2018 is certainly no exception. Antonio Regalado’s article about gene editing, These Are Not Your Father’s GMOs, caught my attention (Regalado, January/February, 2018). In brief summary, gene editing that merely changes a gene without inserting “foreign matter” is legal in the United States. For example, it is legal to insert an extra copy of a small piece (a snippet) of a plant’s DNA strand into the DNA strand, or to remove a snippet. This can be done with current technology, and it is being done.

Gene editing is cheap, powerful, and precise. Most importantly, it makes it easier for more plant scientists to engage in the process of creating new varieties of crops, dreaming up blight-resistant potatoes, tastier tomatoes, drought-tolerant resistant rice, and higher-fiber wheat. Quoting from Regalado’s article:

The U.S. soybean crop is four billion bushels a year, about 240 billion pounds. It generates the most cash receipts for American farms after cattle and corn. Of these beans, more than 90 percent are genetically modified organisms, or GMOs—that is, they have been genetically enhanced, most often through the addition of a gene from a soil bacterium that renders them immune to the weed killer glyphosate, commonly known as Roundup.

Notice that the GMO soybeans produced in the U.S. includes material from a bacterium that does not “naturally” occur in soybeans. A number of European countries ban GMO crops. The pesticide Roundup is controversial, but quite extensive studies have not shown it to be harmful to humans.

The article discusses a new soybean plant in which two snippets within one of the plant's genes have been modified to produce a soybean that has oil more like olive oil. The new beans are the creation of a startup called Calyxt, located near Minneapolis, Minnesota. Quoting again from Regalado’s article:

At the company’s greenhouses, thousands of plants are being altered with gene editing every week. The virtue of the technology is that it lets scientists create designer plants that don’t have foreign DNA in them. The technique, which adds or deletes snippets of genetic information, is similar to what could be achieved through conventional breeding, but only much faster. In essence, if there’s some quality about a soybean that you like, and if you know the genetic instructions responsible, gene editing can move them to another bean in a single molecular step.

Final Remarks

Genetic engineering by careful selection in breeding has been with us for many thousands of years. Companies such as Calyxt argue that what they are doing is “merely” selectively speeding up the processes of genetic engineering that have been used since the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution more than 10,000 years ago.  The CRISPR gene-editing technology has progressed to a level that undergraduate Biology majors are able to carry out such processes.

GMO is a very controversial issue, and the steady improvement in gene-editing technology makes it more and more difficult to regulate the use of this technology.

What You Can Do

Think about your current understanding of genetic engineering, and the opinions you have formed about the use of and sale of GMO crops. Now, ask yourself three questions:

  1. What are you doing to keep up with the improvements in the technology and its emerging ability to readily modify a very wide range of crops?
  2. What can and/or should be done to help guide and regulate the huge surge in genetic engineering of crops that is just now beginning?
  3. What do you think our children—today’s students—should be learning about the potentials of this technology and how it is or will affect their lives?

We are living at a time of very rapid technological change. You, my readers, can decide for yourselves what you personally will learn about these changes, and how they may impact your life.

If you are a parent of precollege-age children, or a teacher, then you face a still larger problem. What should you do to help your own children and/or the students you teach learn about these changes? Our slowly changing educational system was not designed to deal with the current pace of technological change.

References and Resources

Moursund, D. (2017). What the future is bringing us. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 1/4/2018 from http://iae-pedia.org/What_the_Future_is_Bringing_Us.

Moursund, D. (10/19/2017). Free weekly newsletter from MIT. IAE Blog. Retrieved 1/4/2018 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/free-weekly-newsletter-from-mit.html.

Moursund, D. (2/19/2017). What the future is bringing to education. IAE Blog. Retrieved 1/4/2018 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/what-the-future-is-bringing-to-education.html.

Regalado, A. (January/February, 2018). These are not your father’s GMOs. MIT Technology Review.

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Friday, 22 June 2018
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