Genetically modified food are a burning issue. Many people are reluctant to eat plants or animals that have been enhanced with foreign genes, citing health and environmental concerns, the perceived “damage” factor, and, sometimes, conspiratorial thinking.
But GMO foods have the potential to feed hundreds of millions of undernourished people around the world. Considering the benefits of tinkering with the genomes of our meals, a new study published in Science could offer a useful compromise: a way to improve the yields of a crucial crop without adding genes from different organisms.
“Rice is one of the most important crops because it is a staple food for nearly half of the world’s population,” said Wenbin Zhou, a geneticist with China’s National Key Research and Development Program and co – author of the study. Reverse.
By duplicating a key gene, a team of researchers in China has succeeded in designing a strain of agricultural rice that produces up to 40% more grain per plot compared to controls. If widely adopted, this revolutionary technique has the potential to feed many more people with fewer resources, but only if consumers and regulators are willing to give the transgenic dish a chance.
Here’s the background — Unfortunately, our beloved rice is a particularly resource-intensive crop. It requires a lot of land and water to grow, and rice yields could drop by around 40% by 2100 due to intensifying climate change. This is why it is quickly becoming necessary to increase the yields of rice, as well as other endangered staple crops.
Despite its growing usefulness, eating genetically modified rice isn’t for everyone. In fact, it has sparked heated debate for decades. For example, you may have heard of Golden Rice, one of the first commercial GMO crops. It was developed in the 1990s to help supplement vitamin A intake in areas of the world where dietary sources of this nutrient are scarce. The scientists behind Golden Rice inserted a gene found in daffodils, along with a gene from a type of soil bacteria, into the genome of a common domestic rice variety.
Many anti-GMO groups (and members of the general public) couldn’t bear the thought of eating what they considered “Frankenfood”. Concerns ranged from the entirely reasonable, such as unforeseen environmental impacts and lack of corporate clarity, to the bizarre, such as government mind control.
The issue exploded in the mid-2010s when environmental group Greenpeace accused scientists conducting rice safety studies of using children as “guinea pigs”. Following the scandal, the scientists involved were quickly fired by the Chinese government. Golden rice finally received FDA approval in 2018, but remains unapproved in many countries facing major food insecurity and vitamin A deficiency, including Bangladesh and India.
But breeding new types of rice isn’t very helpful, as it’s only been shown to improve yield by about 1% every year. So, in order to keep pace with climate change and global population growth, scientists like Zhou are turning to genetic engineering.
What’s new – To create their new super-rice strain, Zhou’s team first looked at a pool of 118 rice genes associated with plant growth. “We mainly focused on genes that [are] induced by or responds to both nitrogen and light simultaneously,” says Zhou.
The researchers identified 13 genes that turned on when the plants were grown in nitrogen-depleted soil and five that were associated with increased nitrogen uptake. Then they inserted an extra copy of one of these key nitrogen-boosting genes, known as OsDREB1C, in the plant genome. Finally, they germinated these rice plants with unmodified rice and rice with the OsDREB1C gene deleted.
It turned out that the plants with the additional copy of OsDREB1C produced both larger and more abundant grains compared to their unmodified and knockout counterparts. “We were surprised and excited by this,” Zhou says. Additionally, rice plants had significantly more chloroplasts, which allowed them to convert more sunlight into sugar during photosynthesis. However, when it comes to transgenic foods, it is not enough to simply engineer a heartier or healthier crop; you also have to convince people to eat it.
And after – The authors of the new study hope that their transgenic rice will not cause such a stir. For one thing, unlike golden rice, “what we introduced is the original gene from the rice’s own genome,” Zhou says. Instead of borrowing a gene from another organism, the researchers simply sent one of the plant’s growth-promoting genes into overdrive by duplicating it – this happens all the time in nature.
Additionally, the new rice was engineered from a variety of rice that is already commonly grown outside the laboratory, selected with flavor and texture in mind. This recent research effectively acts as a proof of concept, demonstrating that the specific genetic modification works outside of laboratory rice strains. And scientists suspect the same modification could have similar yield-boosting effects on other staple crops, including wheat, which forms the basis of around a third of the world’s diet.