SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Chestnuts harvested from high branches on a chilly fall morning look typical: they’re marble sized, russet colored and nestled in prickly burs. But many are like no other nuts in nature.
In a feat of genetic engineering, about half the chestnuts collected at this college experiment station feature a gene that provides resistance to blight that virtually wiped out the American chestnut tree generations ago.
Researchers at New York state’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry will soon seek federal clearance to distribute thousands of modified trees as part of a restoration effort — a closely-watched move that could expand the frontier for genetically engineered plants beyond farms and into forests. The precedent-setting case adds urgency to a question scientists have already been grappling with:
Should genetic engineering be used in the wild to help save or restore trees?
Opponents warn of starting “a massive and irreversible experiment” in a highly complex ecosystem. Proponents see a technology already ubiquitous in the supermarket that could help save forests besieged by invasive pests.
“We have this technology, it’s a very powerful technology, and we can use that now to save a species,” said Professor William Powell, a molecular plant biologist who directs the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project at the college.
The researchers will ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assess an American chestnut tree with a gene from wheat that helps it tolerate cryphonectria parasitica, a fungus unwittingly imported to the United States over 100 years ago.
The blight decimated a towering tree species once dominant in forests from Maine to Georgia. Nuts from up to 4 billion trees fattened hogs, and its sturdy wood was used to build cabins. Yet by the time Nat King Cole crooned about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” after World War II, trees were doomed by the blight. Surviving trees today are typically shrubs sprouting from old roots, yet to be infected.
Long-running efforts to breed American chestnut trees with the blight tolerance of Chinese chestnut trees are more complicated than once appreciated. That’s because the Chinese tree’s tolerance comes from a suite of genes, instead of one or two.
Powell and his research partner Charles Maynard began working on a complementary track decades ago at the request of the New York chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation. The added wheat gene enables trees to produce an enzyme that breaks down harmful acid released by the fungus.
Right now, the trees are tightly regulated. Modified trees grow behind the fence of the college’s experiment station near trees without the added gene. Researchers breed the two types of trees for genetic diversity. But flowering branch tips are covered with bags that keep pollen from blowing away. Chestnuts grow and are harvested in the same bags.
About half the chestnuts will inherit the gene, the researchers say.
The researchers will ask the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to evaluate the risks of the modified tree. They want the agency to lift the regulations it now imposes.
“What we have to make clear is that it’s not going to be any different than the trees produced through conventional means,” Powell said.
The USDA commonly authorizes genetically engineered crops. The vast majority of commercial corn and soybean acreage in the United States is used to grow crops engineered to be tolerant to herbicides or insects. There are even some genetically engineered plantation trees, such as papayas resistant to ringspot virus.
But engineered trees are not intentionally planted in the forests for conservation. That could change as genetic manipulation becomes more common and trees are increasingly threatened by climate change and invasive pests.
“If the chestnut is approved … I think it’s accurate to say that it does help pave the way for other biotech trees,” said Jason Delborne, an associate professor of science, policy and society at North Carolina State University. Delborne served on a National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine committee that this year released a report that said biotechnology has a potential to help protect forests but recommended more study and investment.
Some scientists are concerned about the long-term effects of a re-introducing a tree into the woods that can live for more than 200 years. How will the new trees interact with the species that replaced the long-gone chestnuts? What if the trees die off again in 50 years?
Forest eco-systems are incredibly complex and the current regulatory framework is not up to the task of evaluating the environmental and societal risks, said biotechnology and sustainable agriculture expert Doug Gurian-Sherman.
“I think we have to step back and ask whether our ability to manipulate things is getting ahead of our ability to understand their impacts,” said Gurian-Sherman, a former senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Rachel Smolker, a co-director of the advocacy group Biofuelwatch and co-author of a report critical of the tree’s release, is concerned that the chestnut tree — with its cozy public image — could be a “Trojan horse” for other trees engineered for commercial use instead of conservation.
Many scientists see biotech as a promising tool left on the shelf, partly due to opposition they say is grounded more in emotion than science.
Meanwhile, trees are dying from scourges such as the emerald ash borer and the spotted lantern fly, and some scientists say biotech could help where other efforts have failed.
“Compared to what’s happening in the world with pests and climate change, I think the risks of making a mistake due to tweaking a gene wrong are so small compared to the risks of doing nothing,” said Steven Strauss, a forest biotechnologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Strauss is prominent in efforts to overturn biotech tree bans on certified commercial forest land.
If the application clears the USDA, the tree still needs to be considered by the Food and Drug Administration and it may need to be reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Powell believes the review could take two to four years.
A green light from the government would clear the way for distribution of the genetically engineered seedlings, pollen, or scions for grafting to volunteers around the chestnut’s traditional range.
In rural upstate New York, Allen Nichols is waiting.
Nichols, president of the New York chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, has about 100 chestnut trees on a rise by his house. Thanks to his diligent care, some lived long enough to produce chestnuts this year. Other trees are dying while others sprout anew — a steady cycle of life, blight and renewal in a rural orchard.
The 69-year-old -retiree looks forward to the day he can graft the genetically engineered tree onto his stock, letting the pollen drift in the wind and bringing back a healthy tree his parents talked fondly about.
“If we can do it, we should do it,” Nichols said as he surveyed his trees. “We owe it to the forest to try to correct some of the damage that we’ve done.”
Curious about what gene editing is? Watch this video to learn how CRISPR is helping farmers grow better crops to feed our growing population.
April 22, 2019
What U.S. dairy farmers of today are doing to preserve our environment
I’ve had the honor of working with dairy farmers for years, and a lot of what you think about them is true. They’re modest. They’re connected to the earth. And they work incredibly hard. Every day, they’re up before dawn, working 12 and 14-hour days, whether it’s 90 degrees out or 50 degrees below zero.
They choose this hard work because they believe in the importance of providing nutritious, great-tasting food, like the milk in your child’s glass or the slice of cheese on her favorite sandwich.
What you might not know is that dairy farmers are working just as hard to ensure our children inherit a healthy planet. They know it’s the right thing to do. And when 95% of dairy farms are family-owned, they do it to ensure the land is there for their children.
But the issues facing our planet require more than just individual action, which is why the U.S. dairy community has made sustainability an industry-wide priority. Years’ worth of investments, research — and, yes, hard work — have allowed us to address critical environmental issues, like climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.
Dairy farmer and environmental scientist Tara Vander Dussen with her family on their farm, Rajen Dairy. (Photo: Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy)
Ten years ago, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy — created by dairy farmers to identify best practices and unite around common goals — established a voluntary yet aggressive goal for the industry. The U.S. dairy community would reduce greenhouse gas emissions intensity 25% by 2020.
Today, we are on track to meet that goal.
In making the investments necessary to meet the goal set, U.S. dairy farmers have become global leaders in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. According to a report earlier this year from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Climate Change and the Global Dairy Cattle Sector, North American dairy farmers are the only ones who have reduced both total GHG emissions and intensity over the last decade.
Dairy farmer and nutritionist Rosemarie Burgos-Zimbelman, who has dedicated her life to dairy nutrition. (Photo: Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy)
It’s not just greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. dairy farmers work more closely with animals than just about anyone, and they know that while they are taking care of the cows, the cows are taking care of them. That’s why they created the National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) Program, the first internationally-certified animal welfare program in the world.
The U.S. dairy community’s commitment to sustainability isn’t new. It has been going on for generations. Indeed, producing milk now uses fewer natural resources than it ever has before. Over the course of the lifetime of today’s average dairy farmer, producing a gallon of milk now requires 65% less water, 90% less land and 63% less carbon emissions.
While progress has been made, there is still a lot to be done. That’s why the U.S. dairy community and dairy farmers are committed to identifying new solutions, technologies and partnerships that will continue to advance our commitment to sustainability.
So why do America’s dairy farmers work so hard to farm more sustainably? Why spend countless hours looking for innovative ways to be more efficient when they’ve already put in a 14-hour day?
It’s not because anyone told them to, or because regulation forced them to. It’s because so many of them are farming land their families have been farming for generations. They know they’re just the latest people entrusted as stewards of the earth. Farmers came before them, and farmers will come after them. Sure, they have more information than any of their predecessors did, and they are now tackling challenges, from climate change to global trade, that their forefathers could scarcely dream of. But the responsibility of today’s dairy farmer — leaving the planet better than they found it — is no different.
This Earth Day, and every day, America’s dairy farmers are living up to that responsibility. May they never tire.
Vilsack is the former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and the current president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.
Renegade bakers and geneticists develop whole-wheat loaves you’ll want to eat
BY VERONIQUE GREENWOOD BOSTON GLOBE
riving up through the rolling farmland north of Seattle this July, I was thinking about my next meal. I arrived in the small industrial park, home to the Washington State University Bread Lab, for a gathering of wheat geneticists and other grain professionals. I’d missed the explanation of the items on the buffet tables, made by attendees. I loaded my plate with about a pound of cookies from the dessert end and steadily consumed the lot. They were soft and nutty, with a rich ruddy color and a delicate crumb. I wiped buttery crumbs from my fingers. I went back for more.
“What are these?” I asked the volunteer by the coffee pots, brandishing a blondie bar. “I’m not sure,” she said. They must be made from some delicious heirloom grain, or something, I thought, surreptitiously loading my pockets.
They’re whole wheat, the lab’s head, Stephen Scott Jones, later told me. One hundred percent. That was a surprise; whole wheat baked goods are often eaten more out of obligation than pleasure. They are not known for their can’t-stop-eating flavor. And yet, the Bread Lab is making its name by doing something that is almost unique in the industry: Breeding wheat — especially wheat for whole wheat flour — for taste. They and their collaborators across the country have quietly launched an effort that they hope will create something new — a whole wheat loaf that people would actually like to eat.
Wheat breeders who develop new strains for the global market aim for traits like the right height for mechanized harvesting, the right texture for mechanized baking, and a high yield. As odd as it sounds, flavor more or less faded from breeders’ awareness somewhere along the line. Jones says that for most of his decades-long career as a breeder, it was not discussed. At the same time, knowledge of the importance of whole grains has been on the rise: Eating whole wheat and other unrefined grains correlates with better heart health, healthier weight, and even longer life, according to epidemiological studies.
So maybe the time is right. At the Bread Lab’s headquarters this summer, a plucky group of about 40 bakers, millers, breeders, and others met to test-bake a loaf they’ve been discussing and fine-tuning for the last two years. They call it the Approachable Loaf.
The loaf they’re all dreaming of has a simple recipe. Start, first of all, with the right wheat for the job. The lab grows thousands of newly generated strains of wheat every year to test them. Steve Lyon, the Bread Lab’s head technician, took me out to one of the experimental fields this summer, where the stalks stood in a patchwork of yellows and tans, all different heights and shapes. The researchers make the same basic test loaf from the freshly milled flour — whole wheat goes rancid quickly, so using fresh-milled is important — and then they taste it. They have identified one new wheat, which they’ve dubbed Skagit 1109, that makes a reliably tasty whole wheat bread. For the moment, a bakery making the Approachable Loaf will likely have to use commodity wheat, but ideally, they’ll develop better options.
The story of bread as we’ve known it is the story of our food system as a whole: In the 19th and 20th centuries, the advance of technology on farms, in mills, and in factories allowed the mass production of foods from an ever-longer list of ingredients, both natural and artificial. The Approachable Loaf symbolizes something else — the possibility that, through the application of science, even a food as humble and maligned as whole wheat bread can be both simpler and tastier.
Nutritionally, whole wheat flour is better for you than white. The germ and the bran, the portions of the wheat kernel with the most fiber and other nutrients, stay in whole wheat flour when it’s milled, giving it its distinctive dark color. But they usually curb your desire to put it in your mouth. Compared to the seductive quality of a good white sourdough — tangy and just a little stretchy — or even the gentle squish of a soft white grocery store loaf, melting seamlessly into a slab of grilled cheese, the ashy, faintly bitter whole wheat loaf is no competition.
The battle between light and dark in the matter of bread is longer and weirder than most people realize. While many might assume the rise of whole wheat bread as a health food started with the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s, anthropologist Aaron Bobrow-Strain traces it back far earlier. Over thousands of years, the color of bread has carried various meanings, he writes in his book “White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.” Hearty dark loaves were better for building a society than wimpy white ones, Plato argued in “The Republic”; Socrates, on the other hand, felt whole-meal bread was essentially animal food.
By the 19th century in the United States, activists claimed whole wheat would bring people closer to God, and thus to health. One influential obsessive was Sylvester Graham, the New England minister who gave his name to the graham cracker. A sickly child, he eventually turned to vegetarianism as an adult. Today, he might have started a blog about clean eating. Eating foods in their most natural form, like whole wheat, was what God intended man to do, Graham argued in lectures that caused riots in Boston and New York, and anything that was wrong with you could be taken care of with whole wheat bread and water.
Grahamism had adherents of all stripes: Educational reformer Amos Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, the author of “Little Women,” founded a farm commune northwest of Boston to live in the manner prescribed by the movement. It lasted only seven months. Louisa May, who was 10 at the time, later lampooned the endeavor in her satire “Transcendental Wild Oats.” She noted that the vast majority of the labor fell to women and children, while the men sat around discussing the philosophy of food. “About the time the grain was ready to house,” she wrote dryly, “some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away.”
Today, the benefits of eating more whole grains are among the rare things that virtually all nutrition experts agree on. The US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends that half of all grains should be whole. But 2015 numbers show that almost nobody eats that way.
Past efforts to make virtue a little tastier have achieved the opposite. The food historian Maria Trumpler visited the Bread Lab recently and demonstrated whole wheat bread recipes from the 1970s and ’80s — an era when adding molasses, powdered milk, and other substances to try to hide the whole wheat was in vogue.
“They were just absolutely horrible,” says Jones, nearly awed by the badness. “If you have a bread book from the ’70s, you should burn it! I’m not into book burning, but, God — you should just get rid of it.” There must, he and colleagues think, be a better way.
Wheat breeder David Van Sanford, a professor at University of Kentucky, recalls when he first learned of Jones, who had become fed up with the situation and helped found the Bread Lab in 2011. I’ve gone to scads of meetings, Jones had told a reporter, and never heard the term “flavor” used once. “That really resonated with me,” Van Sanford says. Wheat flour can, in fact, have a taste: For a good bread wheat, “the words we use are nutty, chocolate tones, and a bit of spice tone,” Jones says. A wheat used for cookies and pie dough has a different, more mellow profile.
When most wheat breeders assess the outcomes of their efforts and decide what to do next, however, they evaluate what the wheat is like without the bran and germ. The bran and the germ are what give whole wheat much of its taste. As a result, a wheat that’s bred for an inoffensive-tasting white flour might make a whole wheat flour that’s depressingly like sawdust. When no one is breeding for a whole wheat that tastes good, Jones argues, it is not all that surprising that it winds up bad. Jones’s savvy as a scientist and his conviction are persuasive; his lab has relationships with well-known companies such as King Arthur Flour, Clif Bar, and Chipotle.
If a whole wheat loaf has a good flavor, is affordable, and meets the needs of those who don’t frequent artisanal bakeries — which have a dedicated but small clientele — it wouldn’t be nearly so hard for people to eat more of it, think the people behind the Approachable Loaf, many of whom have attended annual gatherings at the Bread Lab over the last few years.
One of them, Louie Prager, who runs the Prager Brothers bakery in Carlsbad, Calif., has noticed that some of his own employees prefer a soft brown supermarket loaf. It has no holes for mustard to leak through, it’s good for sandwiches for packed lunches, it doesn’t go bad very quickly, it’s familiar, and it’s inexpensive, something you can’t say about some artisanal loaves. But it often has many stabilizers, colorants, and dough conditioners that artisan bakers avoid, as well as a surprising amount of sugar.
Other than better wheat, the only other ingredients in the Approachable Loaf are sourdough starter, salt, small amounts of oil and sugar, and water. Using starter to leaven the bread gives it a longer shelf life than a standard yeasted bread; the sugar and oil give the bread a flavor and texture that’s closer to the supermarket loaf.
Experience and skill on the part of the baker helps in getting a good product, of course: Those bizarrely delicious cookies I tasted at the Bread Lab’s headquarters did involve a good choice of wheat, but the flour was also probably freshly milled and the bakers knew what they were doing, notes Van Sanford. The loose network of people testing and fine-tuning the Approachable Loaf includes professional bakers in Washington, California, and Vermont, working to bring their technical knowledge of artisanal bread making to bear on something closer to the supermarket loaf. Jones estimates that at least eight bakeries are currently making some version of it.
Can the Approachable Loaf go big? Bringing together breeding, farming, processing, and food production to make something that both satisfies the consumer and is nutritious is not a simple process, says Tim Griffin, a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University who collaborates with Bread Lab researchers. But for the past year and a half or so, he and colleagues have been discussing it in the context of the Approachable Loaf. “We’re seeing bread as our first test case for that,” he says. “What would the system have to look like if we successfully used whole grains?” They are investigating what businesses would need to exist, how the supply chains for bread would need to change, and other logistical barriers to a loaf that’s both nutritious and legitimately attractive.
If the bakers can come up with a tasty loaf, then the millers will need to come up with a procedure to mill large quantities of whole wheat flour while keeping it from going bad, and farmers will need to learn to grow and profit from breeds of wheat that make whole wheat worth eating. These are the kinds of challenges he’s considering.
In Montana, wheat breeder and Flathead Valley Community College professor Heather Estrada has her eyes on the near term: using wheat she and her students have grown to bake the Approachable Loaf together. “We were able to clean all our grain and it’s ready for milling,” she said gleefully when I spoke to her October. The loaf is a way for her students to see all the pieces of the food system they’ve been studying all semester, from field to lab to kitchen, come together in a way that’s more than glancing. “There’s a lot of cultural depth,” Estrada says, “to the story of bread.”
Food is going high-tech — policy needs to catch up with it
BY THE BOSTON GLOBE EDITORIAL BOARD
or generations newspaper editorials have been the “eat your spinach” part of the operation. But what if that spinach can now be organic baby spinach, or hydroponically grown? What if we can eat it year round — and from just around the corner?
With a warming planet, the need for high-tech food and high-tech food policies is undeniable. Both are going to play an increasingly vital role in the planet’s future — and the way we eat. Here are a few ways to use science to steer food into a more sustainable path.
Learn to love GMOs, and resist efforts to demonize or prohibit them. Genetically modified food sets off alarm bells for purists, but crops designed to last longer or resist disease are increasingly necessary.
The good news is that new federal labeling regulations, which could become final by Dec. 1, will preclude the kind of state-by-state labeling regulations that Vermont had already indulged in and that Massachusetts has been perpetually on the cusp of enacting.
The even better news is that the science of food — of producing fruits with a longer shelf life, wheat that requires less water or fertilizer — is advancing so fast that even the foodie fearmongers can’t keep up.
First on the federal role: While moving at a glacial pace, the US Department of Agriculture has at long last brought forth a final set of regulations designed to implement a law passed by Congress in 2016 to deal with standards for disclosing bioengineered ingredients. Not surprisingly the new regs generated a huge amount of controversy — more than 14,000 comments received by the agency during the public comment period.
Assuming the regs are indeed finalized Dec. 1, they won’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2020. What consumers are likely to notice is that GMO labeling will become “BE food,” or “bioengineered food.” And since at least two-thirds of all foods sold in the US contain some ingredients in that category — consumers are indeed likely to see it everywhere.
What it will accomplish is to prevent every state and locality from drafting its own labeling laws and, in the process, making the free movement of good products from state to state difficult if not impossible. And it will let innovation continue unhindered.
The future of seafood in the United States is aquaculture. Even the king of seafood, Roger Berkowitz, acknowledges that. “The technology has gotten so good with submersible pens,” said Berkowitz, chief executive of the Legal Sea Foods empire. “It’s a game changer.”
Berkowitz is particularly excited about the prospect of fish farms in federal open waters. Aquaculture in Massachusetts is largely confined to shallow waters; think oyster beds on Cape Cod. Of course, this country for years has talked about offshore fish farming, but the time has come, with wild fish stocks dwindling. In 2017, the US imported a record amount of seafood, more than 6 billion pounds, and exported only about 3.6 billion pounds.
While Massachusetts and some municipalities have regulated aquaculture, what’s needed now is a federal regulatory framework to support aquaculture in the ocean. It hasn’t been easy navigating the concerns of environmentalists, fishermen worried about their own livelihoods, and ships attached to particular routes. The ocean may be big, but surprisingly not big enough to accommodate everyone’s needs.
Congress can play a big role: Get a bill that everyone likes. Here’s another thought: How about supporting aquaculture as part of the farm bill, something US Representative Seth Moulton would like to see. With Democrats taking back the majority in the House, maybe this could get done next year.
Clear federal policies could enable the prospect of fish farming using the infrastructure of offshore wind turbines. Without such policies, the future of fish farming will remain murky, because these operations are expensive and investors don’t like uncertainty.
“No one would spend a dime on that,” said Peter Shelley, senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation, which has been closely following the development of aquaculture in the ocean. “It makes Cape Wind look like a sure bet.”
Assume change. Farm and food policies tend to deal with what we eat and grow now, but climate change should end that way of thinking. The government and industry need to anticipate disruption, and be ready to adapt, rather than pour money into trying to preserve vanishing industries that can’t be sustained any longer.
Rising temperature of oceans, for example, have forced the cod and lobsters to flee north to colder waters. We lament the loss of cod in Massachusetts, but Southern fish species are flocking to us now. In other words, we need to get used to “Cape Mahi-Mahi.”
Warmer temperatures in New England could extend the growing season for blueberries, strawberries, peaches, and corn. That could be a silver lining for consumers and farmers’ markets.
Food policy is often inherently conservative: organic food fans and proponents of farm subsidies want different versions of the same thing, which is to cling to the way food’s always been. But food is going to change whether we like it or not — and our food policies should try to direct those changes, not stop them.
Published at 5:39 PM EDT on Jun 19, 2018 | Updated at 7:10 AM EDT on Jun 20, 2018
The Florida citrus industry is having their worst harvest in 73 years, and scientists at the University of Connecticut are stepping in to help.
The poor harvest is in part because of damage from Hurricane Irma, but the devastation started long before that. A disease known as citrus greening has been wreaking havoc for years. UConn researchers are working on a solution.
“Our hope is that we can modify endogenous genes in citrus to create the greening disease’s resistance,” explained University of Connecticut scientist Dr. Yi Li.
Gene editing is often discussed in terms of medical advancements and new health treatments. But gene editing can also benefit the food we eat and agriculture as well. Some of the latest developments are happening in Connecticut.
Florida citrus crops have been falling victim to the greening disease since 2005. The contagious disease is spread by a bacteria found in insects feeding off of citrus crops. The bacteria grows and spreads throughout the trees. But the process is slow – it can take up to five years after a tree is infected for it to show signs of damage. As of today, 75 percent of the Florida citrus crops have been wiped out by this quickly spreading disease that has also made its way to crops in Texas and California.
The UConn scientists are working in conjunction with the University of Florida to find a cure.
“We are basically the technology development lab,” Li said. “And then once we develop the technology people in Florida our collaborators are going to use our technology to genetically modify citrus genome.”
These small, targeted changes to an organism’s original genes produce a specific beneficial result. These genetic alterations can provide plants and animals with beneficial characteristics, just like the disease resistance seen in the citrus crops.
Helping the Florida citrus crop is only part of what’s being done here in the lab. Li and his team have also been implementing their gene editing technique on landscaping products that could soon be used in your own backyard. Their latest project? Slow growing grass.
“We started to breed them to develop these traits that we thought would be beneficial to lawn owners, homeowners, and commercial lawn care people,” explains PhD student Lorenzo Katin-Grazzini, “Such as slow growth to drastically reduce the mowing time that’s needed to really just save cost and time and energy associated with turf grass management.”
Li has also created a genetically modified burning bush, a plant often found in New England that spreads rapidly. Where it grows nothing else can, decreasing the diversity in our forests.
“They either don’t produce seeds or produce very few seeds as such that the birds cannot spread them anymore because there are no seeds,” Li said. “So we hope that those plants are going to be released through horticulture in the next two to three years.”
But the lab at UConn isn’t stopping there.
“I do want to work with more ornamental plants,” Li said. “Particularly invasive plants because I do think that has a huge impact on biodiversity on our environment so if we can use gene editing technology to make that non-invasive that’s what I would like to work on.”
Published by the CT Mirror on May 28th, 2018
To feed the burgeoning human population, it is vital that the world figures out ways to boost food production.
Increasing crop yields through conventional plant breeding is inefficient – the outcomes are unpredictable and it can take years to decades to create a new strain. On the other hand, powerful genetically modified plant technologies can quickly yield new plant varieties, but their adoption has been controversial. Many consumers and countries have rejected GMO foods even though extensive studies have proved they are safe to consume.
But now a new genome editing technology known as CRISPR may offer a good alternative.
I’m a plant geneticist and one of my top priorities is developing tools to engineer woody plants such as citrus trees that can resist the greening disease, Huanglongbing (HLB), which has devastated these trees around the world. First detected in Florida in 2005, the disease has decimated the state’s $9 billion citrus crop, leading to a 75 percent decline in its orange production in 2017. Because citrus trees take five to 10 years before they produce fruits, our new technique – which has been nominated by many editors-in-chief as one of the groundbreaking approaches of 2017 that has the potential to change the world – may accelerate the development of non-GMO citrus trees that are HLB-resistant.
GENETICALLY MODIFIED VS. GENE EDITED
You may wonder why the plants we create with our new DNA editing technique are not considered GMO? It’s a good question.
Genetically modified refers to plants and animals that have been altered in a way that wouldn’t have arisen naturally through evolution. A very obvious example of this involves transferring a gene from one species to another to endow the organism with a new trait – like pest resistance or drought tolerance.
But in our work, we are not cutting and pasting genes from animals or bacteria into plants. We are using genome editing technologies to introduce new plant traits by directly rewriting the plants’ genetic code.
This is faster and more precise than conventional breeding, is less controversial than GMO techniques, and can shave years or even decades off the time it takes to develop new crop varieties for farmers.
There is also another incentive to opt for using gene editing to create designer crops. On March 28, 2018, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that the USDA wouldn’t regulate new plant varieties developed with new technologies like genome editing that would yield plants indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods. By contrast, a plant that includes a gene or genes from another organism, such as bacteria, is considered a GMO. This is another reason why many researchers and companies prefer using CRISPR in agriculture whenever it is possible.
CHANGING THE PLANT BLUEPRINT
The gene editing tool we use is called CRISPR – which stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats” – and was adapted from the defense systems of bacteria. These bacterial CRISPR systems have been modified so that scientists like myself can edit the DNA of plants, animals, human cells and microorganisms. This technology can be used in many ways, including to correct genetic errors in humans that cause diseases, to engineer animals bred for disease research, and to create novel genetic variations that can accelerate crop improvement.
To use CRISPR to introduce a useful trait into a crop plant, we need to know the genes that control a particular trait. For instance, previous studies have revealed that a natural plant hormone called gibberellin is essential for plant height. The GA20-ox gene controls the quantity of gibberellin produced in plants. To create a breed of “low mowing frequency” lawn grass, for example, we are editing the DNA – changing the sequence of the DNA that makes up gene – of this plant to reduce the output of the GA20-ox gene in the selected turf grass. With lower gibberellin, the grass won’t grow as high and won’t need to be mowed as often.
The CRISPR system was derived from bacteria. It is made up of two parts: Cas9, a little protein that snips DNA, and an RNA molecule that serves as the template for encoding the new trait in the plant’s DNA.
To use CRISPR in plants, the standard approach is to insert the CRISPR genes that encode the CRISPR-Cas9 “editing machines” into the plant cell’s DNA. When the CRISPR-Cas9 gene is active, it will locate and rewrite the relevant section of the plant genome, creating the new trait.
But this is a catch-22. Because to perform DNA editing with CRISPR/Cas9 you first have to genetically alter the plant with foreign CRISPR genes – this would make it a GMO.
A NEW STRATEGY FOR NON-GMO CROPS
For annual crop plants like corn, rice and tomato that complete their life cycles from germination to the production of seeds within one year, the CRISPR genes can be easily eliminated from the edited plants. That’s because some seeds these plants produce do not carry CRISPR genes, just the new traits.
But this problem is much trickier for perennial crop plants that require up to 10 years to reach the stage of flower and seed production. It would take too long to wait for seeds that were free of CRISPR genes.
My team at the University of Connecticut and my collaborators at Nanjing Agricultural University, Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Hunan Agricultural University and University of California-San Diego have recently developed a convenient, new technique to use CRISPR to reliably create desirable traits in crop plants without introducing any foreign bacterial genes.
We first engineered a naturally occurring soil microbe, Agrobacterium, with the CRIPSR genes. Then we take young leaf or shoot material from plants and mix them in petri dishes with the bacteria and allow them to incubate together for a couple of days. This gives the bacteria time to infect the cells and deliver the gene editing machinery, which then alters the plant’s genetic code.
In some Agrobacterium infected cells, the Agrobacterium basically serves as a Trojan horse, bringing all the editing tools into the cell, rather than engineering plants to have their own editing machinery. Because the bacterial genes or CRISPR genes do not become part of the plant’s genome in these cells – and just do the work of gene editing – any plants derived from these cells are not considered a GMO.
After a couple of days, we can cultivate plants from the edited plant cells. Then it take several weeks or months to grow an edited plant that could be planted on a farm. The hard part is figuring out which plants are successfully modified. But we have a solution to this problem too and have developed a method that takes only two weeks to identify the edited plants.
GENETICALLY DESIGNED LAWNS
One significant difference between editing plants versus human cells is that we are not as concerned about editing typos. In humans, such errors could cause disease, but off-target mutations in plants are not a serious concern. A number of published studies reported low to negligible off-target activity observed in plants when compared to animal systems.
Also, before distributing any plants to farmers for planting in their field, the edited plants will be carefully evaluated for obvious defects in growth and development or their responses to drought, extreme temperatures, disease and insect attacks. Further, DNA sequencing of edited plants once they have been developed can easily identify any significant undesirable off-target mutations.
In addition to citrus, our technology should be applicable in most perennial crop plants such as apple, sugarcane, grape, pear, banana, poplar, pine, eucalyptus and some annual crop plants such as strawberry, potato and sweet potato that are propagated without using seeds.
We also see a role for genome editing technologies in many other plants used in the agricultural, horticultural and forestry industries. For example, we are creating lawn grass varieties that require less fertilizer and water. I bet you would like that too.
January 24, 2018
Humankind is on the verge of a genetic revolution that holds great promise and potential. It will change the ways food is grown, medicine is produced, animals are altered and will give rise to new ways of producing plastics, biofuels and chemicals.
Many object to the genetic revolution, insisting we should not be ‘playing God’ by tinkering with the building blocks of life; we should leave the genie in the bottle. This is the view held by many opponents of GMO foods. But few transformative scientific advances are widely embraced at first. Once a discovery has been made and its impact widely felt it is impossible to stop despite the pleas of doubters and critics concerned about potential unintended consequences. Otherwise, science would not have experienced great leaps throughout history—and we would still be living a primitive existence.
Gene editing of humans and plants—a revolutionary technique developed just a few years ago that makes genetic tinkering dramatically easier, safer and less expensive—has begun to accelerate this revolution. University of California-Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna, one of the co-inventors of the CRISPR technique::
Within the next few years, this new biotechnology will give us higher-yielding crops, healthier livestock, and more nutritious foods. Within a few decades, we might well have genetically engineered pigs that can serve as human organ donors…we are on the cusp of a new era in the history of life on earth—an age in which humans exercise an unprecedented level of control over the genetic composition of the species that co-inhabit our planet. It won’t be long before CRISPR allows us to bend nature to our will in the way that humans have dreamed of since prehistory.
The four articles in this series will examine the dramatic changes that gene editing and other forms of genetic engineering will usher in.
Great advances likely for GE foods
Despite the best efforts of opponents, GE crops have become so embedded and pervasive in the food systems—even in Europe which has bans in place on growing GMOs in most countries—that it is impossible to dislodge them without doing serious damage to the agricultural sector and boosting food costs for consumers.
Even countries which ban the growing of GMOs or who have such strict labeling laws that few foods with GE ingredients are sold in supermarkets are huge consumers of GE products.
Europe is one of the largest importers of GMO feed in the world. Most of the meat we consume from cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, pigs and fish farms are fed genetically modified corn, soybeans and alfalfa.
North America, much of South America and Australia are major consumers of foods grown from GE seeds. Much of the corn oil, cotton seed oil, soybean oil and canola oil used for frying and cooking, and in salad dressings and mayonnaise is genetically modified. GM soybeans are used to make tofu, miso, soybean meal, soy ice cream, soy flour and soy milk. GM corn is processed into corn starch and corn syrup and is used to make whiskey. Much of our sugar is derived from GM sugar beets and GE sugarcane is on the horizon. Over 90 percent of the papaya grown in Hawaii has been genetically modified to make it resistant to the ringspot virus. Some of the squash eaten in the US is made from GM disease-resistant seeds and developing countries are field testing GM disease-resistant cassava.
Many critics of GE in agriculture focus on the fact that by volume most crops are used in commodity food manufacturing, specifically corn and soybeans. One reason for that is the high cost of getting new traits approved. Indeed, research continues on commodity crops, although many of the scientists work for academia and independent research institutes.
For example, in November 2016, researchers in the UK were granted the authority to begin trials of a genetically engineered wheat that has the potential to increase yields by 40 percent. The wheat, altered to produce a higher level of an enzyme critical for turning sunlight and carbon dioxide into plant fuel, was developed in part by Christine Raines, the Head of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex.
Genetic engineering and nutrition enhancement
A new generation of foods are now on the horizon, some as the result of new breeding techniques (NBTs), such as gene editing. Many of these foods will be nutritionally fortified, which will be critical to boosting the health of many of the poorest people in developing nations and increase yields.
Golden rice is a prime example of such a nutrition-enhanced crop. It is genetically engineered to have high levels of beta carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A. This is particularly important as many people in developing countries suffer from Vitamin A deficiency which leads to blindness and even death. Bangladesh is expected to begin cultivation of golden rice in 2018. The Philippines may also be close to growing it.
A strain of golden rice that includes not only high levels of beta carotene but also high levels of zinc and iron could be commercialized within 5 years. “Our results demonstrate that it is possible to combine several essential micronutrients – iron, zinc and beta carotene – in a single rice plant for healthy nutrition,” said Navreet Bhullar, senior scientist at ETH Zurich, which developed the rice.
The Science in the News group at Harvard University discussed some of the next generation foods.
Looking beyond Golden Rice, there are a large number of biofortified staple crops in development. Many of these crops are designed to supply other micronutrients, notably vitamin E in corn, canola and soybeans…Protein content is also a key focus; protein-energy malnutrition affects 25% of children because many staple crops have low levels of essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are building blocks of proteins and must be taken in through the diet or supplements. So far, corn, canola, and soybeans have been engineered to contain higher amounts of the essential amino acid lysine. Crops like corn, potatoes and sugar beets have also been modified to contain more dietary fiber, a component with multiple positive health benefits.
Other vitamin-enhanced crops have been developed though they have yet to be commercialized. Australian scientists created a GE Vitamin A enriched banana, scientists in Kenya developed GE Vitamin A enhanced sorghum and plant scientists in Switzerland developed a GE Vitamin B6 enhanced cassava plant. None is near approval, however.
Scientists genetically engineered canola, a type of rapeseed, to produce additional omega-3 fatty acids. Research is being conducted on developing GM gluten free wheat and vegetables with higher levels of Vitamin E to fight heart disease.
Other more consumer-focused genetically-engineered crops that do not use transgenics, and have sailed through the approval system include:
- FDA has approved the commercialization of a GE non-browning apple—the Arctic Apple, developed by using a gene-silencing technique.
- Simplot has developed GE potatoes created using gene-silencing techniques. They are less prone to bruising and blackening, in some cases are resistant to certain diseases and also contain less asparagine which reduces the potential for acrylamide that is created when frying, baking and roasting.
Fighting plant diseases
Other products are in development that fight viruses and disease. Scientists have used genetic engineering to develop disease-resistant rice. A new plum variety resists the plum pox virus. It has not yet been commercialized. GE solutions may be the only answer to save the orange industry from citrus greening, which is devastating orange groves in Florida. GE might be utilized to curb the damage caused by stem rust fungus in wheat and diseases effecting the coffee crop.
In Africa, GE solutions could be used to combat the ravages of banana wilt and cassava brown streak disease and diseases that impact cocoa trees and potatoes. A GE bean has been developed in Brazil that is resistant to the golden mosaic virus. Researchers at the University of Florida, the University of California-Berkeley and the 2Blades Foundation have developed a disease resistant GM tomato.
Scientists at the John Innes Center in the UK are attempting to create a strain of barley capable of making its own ammonium fertilizer from nitrogen in the soil. This would be particularly beneficial to farmers who grow crops in poor soil conditions or who lack the financial resources to buy artificial fertilizers.
Peggy Ozias-Akins, a horticulture expert at the University of Georgia has developed and tested genetically-engineered peanuts that do not produce two proteins linked to intense allergens.
New Breeding Techniques
New gene editing techniques (NBTs) such as CRISPR offer great potential and face lower approval hurdles, at least for now.
- Scientists at Penn State have removed the gene that causes white button mushrooms to discolor, and the product was quickly approved.
- In 2014, scientists in China produced bread wheat resistant to powdery mildew.
- Calyxt, a biotechnology company, has developed a potato variety that prevents the accumulation of certain sugars, reducing the bitter taste associated with storage. The potato also has a lower amount of acrylamide.
- DuPont has developed a gene-edited variety of corn, which can be used to thicken food products and make adhesives.
In June, the EPA approved a new first of its kind GE corn known as SmartStaxPro, in which the plant’s genes are tweaked without transgenics to produce a natural toxin designed to kill western corn rootworm larvae. It also produces a piece of RNA that shuts down a specific gene in the larvae, thereby killing them. The new GE corn is expected to be commercialized by the end of the decade.
What could slow—or even stop—this revolution? In an opinion piece for Nature Biology, Richard B. Flavell, a British molecular biologist and former director of the John Innes Center in the UK, which conducts research in plant science, genetics and microbiology, warned about the dangers of vilifying and hindering new GE technologies:
The consequences of simply sustaining the chaotic status quo—in which GMOs and other innovative plant products are summarily demonized by activists and the organic lobby—are frightening when one considers mounting challenges to food production, balanced nutrition and poverty alleviation across the world. Those who seek to fuel the GMO versus the non-GMO debate are perpetuating irresolvable difference of opinion. …Those who seek to perpetuate the GMO controversy and actively prevent use of new technology to crop breeding are not only on the wrong side of the debate, they are on the wrong side of the evidence. If they continue to uphold beliefs against evidence, they will find themselves on the wrong side of history.
Steven E. Cerier is a freelance international economist and a frequent contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project.
Most of us don’t spend our days plowing fields or wrangling cattle. We’re part of the 99 percent of Americans who eat food but don’t produce it. Because of our intimate relationship with food and because it’s so crucial to our health and the environment, people should be very concerned about how it’s produced. But we don’t always get it right. Next time you’re at the grocery store, consider these 10 modern myths about the most ancient occupation. Read more…