Genetic modification of food crops is, depending on your point of view, a wondrous technological solution to feed a growing global population or a hubris-soaked scientific monstrosity sowing the seeds of environmental apocalypse.
Yet the war over GM crops, though intense, has so far been restricted to a small number of battlefields – corn, soybean, tomatoes and canola, for instance – due to the limited list of plant species scientists have been able to successfully modify.
Now the stage may be set for a massive expansion in the theatres of conflict. A team of mostly Chinese scientists has announced a new technique, called pollen magnetofection, which they say overcomes the obstacles of traditional plant-transformation methods and clears the way to genetically modify “almost all crops”.
“At the moment, we are very limited as to which plants, and even types of plants – called cultivars – we are able to transform,” explains Rachel Burton, of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls at the University of Adelaide, who was not involved in the research.
“For example, we work with barley a lot, and are only able to make transgenic barley from about 10 cultivars. There are even more we can’t transform at all. This technology would change that.”
Almost all current GM methods involve regenerating a new plant from a single transformed cell using complicated in vitro culture processes. The alternative approach taken by Xiang Zhao, of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing, and colleagues is to first manipulate the DNA of pollen, then use this pollen to fertilise a plant’s ovary and directly generate transgenic seeds. Read more