A breed apart
Some researchers are using genetic modification to accelerate conventional breeding techniques. Ralph Scorza, a plant scientist at the Appalachian Fruit Research Station, leads a team that has genetically modified plum trees. The modified trees can survive only in greenhouses. But thanks to the insertion of a gene from poplar trees, they begin to flower much earlier in their lifetimes than conventional varieties do, and then continuously thereafter. This means that researchers can breed the trees throughout the year, using selection, cross-breeding and other traditional techniques to develop traits such as disease resistance in just a few years, as opposed to the decade or more that conventional breeding might require. When the desired traits have been bred in, the transgenes that drive flowering can be bred out, leaving a modified but non-GM plant. Scorza and his colleagues are using this 'FasTrack' breeding strategy in an effort to generate resistance to the plum pox virus, and to increase the sugar content of the fruit. Researchers elsewhere are applying it to crops such as citrus.
US regulators have already suggested that organisms modified with the newer techniques such that they contain no DNA from other species will be treated differently from conventional GM organisms. That might also alleviate public concerns. “We can overcome hopefully at least some of the opposition to the genetic modification,” says Alan McHughen, a molecular geneticist at the University of California, Riverside.
Besides, notes Bondar, there may be no stopping GM organisms. She points out that genetic engineering now has a relatively low bar to entry. 'Biohackers' working with bacteria are already conducting genetic modification experiments in their garages and spare bedrooms, and there is nothing to stop them from applying their skills to plants — or animals — in the future.
“It's becoming easier all the time. I think people are hungry for this kind of thing,” says Bondar. “The jet packs that everybody wanted — I think it's time for them to come out. If the marketplace isn't providing that from the top down, you may see it from the bottom up.”