Scientists find alternative to GMOs

Scientists from the US believe that they have found an alternative method for producing desirable traits in plants and animals that does not involve potentially harmful and highly controversial artificial genetic modification.

Experiments on thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) have revealed the importance of a heat stress protein, Hsp90, to the buffering of naturally occurring mutations in plants, so that mutations accumulate without producing a visible effect. Hsp90 assists the folding of the proteins within a cell that play a key role in regulating growth and development. However, if the functioning of Hsp90 is lowered – by raising temperatures or by introducing a particular drug – a variety of genetic mutations are revealed, say Christine Queitsch and Todd Sangster of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, affiliated to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Our data suggests that there may be a wealth of genetic variation out there right now that we can’t see because the plants haven’t been grown in the right conditions,” said team leader Susan Lindquist.

Whilst the majority of mutations are harmful to the plants themselves, others include leaves with new shapes, different pigmentation, and hairy roots. Traits observed in one plant were generally shared with offspring that had the same genetic blueprint, but those with different blueprints produced a profusion of different mutations.

By utilising the effects of ‘shutting down’ Hsp90, plant breeders could speed up evolution and remove the need for transgenic manipulations. This would avoid the public controversy surrounding GMOs, which derive their traits from the transplantation of exotic genes, said Lindquist.

The scientists’ work confirms previous research on fruit flies (Drosophila), and establishes the importance of Hsp90 in both plants and animals. The Drosophila research revealed that several generations of selective breeding concentrates genetic mutations to the point at which the new traits remain even when Hsp90 activity is restored.

The research is published in the journal Nature.

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