“Genetically Modified Lite” placates public but not activists

New technologies to manipulate plant genomes could help to overcome public concerns about GM crops
Philip Hunter

Author Affiliations

  • Philip Hunter, Freelance journalist, 1London, UK

The public debate over the alleged health and environmental risks of genetically modified (GM) crop plants, which has been festering for more than two decades, may be about to take a new turn in light of novel technologies to manipulate plant genomes. These include the two related techniques of cisgenic and intragenic modification that involve the import of genes from closely related, sexually compatible plant species, or that modify the plant genome without involving any foreign DNA (Fig 1). Other techniques in the pipeline should be able to modify gene expression to create new phenotypes without the need to import DNA from elsewhere. By contrast, current transgenic manipulation techniques involve the transfer of DNA into plants from unrelated species, such as Bacillus thuringiensis, the toxin gene of which was used to generate pest‐resistant GM maize and cotton. Moreover, unlike the old “scatter‐gun” approaches that were used to transfer genes into plant cells, some of the new technologies are highly specific for manipulating the target genome, even down to exchanging single nucleotides.

Figure 1.

Transgenic, cisgenic and intragenic genetic modification of crop plants.

These advances raise regulatory issues—notably whether plants modified using cisgenic or intragenic techniques should still be regulated as transgenic—but should also breathe new life into the debate about the regulation and public acceptance of GM crops. Some plant scientists believe that these new approaches provide an opportunity to outmanoeuvre the anti‐GM activists by changing the terms of the debate. Because the new techniques can be described—albeit spuriously—as being more “natural”, they may convince a wary public that the resulting crops are not “Frankenfood” and carry less risk to health and the environment. “Some of my colleagues and I plan to switch the term to ‘precision breeding’ as a more practical descriptor that avoids scientific jargon and terms which have …

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