Designer genes: Technical DIY – Down to Earth

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In the face of global food insecurity and an ever-changing climate, we expect farmers to produce more and to do so using sustainable techniques. While cultures naturally evolve over time, we now want them to adapt to our demands at an unprecedented rate. The Down to Earth team is taking a closer look.

New breeding techniques compared to genetically modified organisms

Unlike traditional “genetic modification”, new breeding techniques (NBT) do not introduce foreign DNA into an organism. Instead, a “modification” is made to the existing DNA of a plant using molecular scissors called CRISPR-Cas9. These adjustments are equivalent to mutations that might occur naturally, but in this case the new trait of the plant is selected and accelerated.

Scientist Jean-Luc Gallois uses these scissors to shape tomatoes with increased resistance to certain viruses.

It’s the kind of work that could eventually help farmers like Alexis Hache, who has seen his sugar beet crops plagued with the yellow beet virus year after year, forcing him to resort to pesticides. Today, Hache sees NBTs as the answer, saying resistance that would take five years to develop using traditional plant breeding could be produced “overnight” in a lab.

Leap into the unknown

But Guy Kastler of the Confederation of French Farmers is skeptical. He argues that plants created in the lab will always be less suited to the natural environment of the field and therefore need more pesticides, not less. He doesn’t think these techniques should be ruled out, but calls for caution before they become mainstream.

About Alma Ackerman

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