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Scientists Are Fighting Genetically Modified Superweeds with More GMOs

GMOs won't be going away anytime soon but scientists at the University of Guelph may have found a way to stop them from spreading into the wild.
Flickr photo via skyseeker

There are many different kinds of invasive species: Asian carp, algae, the new Carly Rae Jepsen single, genetically modified plants. While nothing can be done to halt a video of Tom Hanks lip-synching his way into Bill Murray-levels of meme popularity, scientists at the University of Guelph's plant agriculture department may have found a way to stop GM plants from invading neighbouring farms and wild landscapes.


Researcher Sherif Sherif says that his team discovered a gene in peach trees that lets the plant self-pollinate rather than relying on other plants to reproduce. If the gene were to be inserted into genetically modified crops, it could result in their numbers being contained in the fields rather than run the risk of contaminating non-GM crops in adjacent farms or wild plants.

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"The major concern in biotech right now is gene flow, which is transferring the gene of a transgenic (GM) plant into wild types or an organic farm," says Sherif, whose study was published last month in the BMC Biology journal. "So in canola, for instance, there are herbicide-tolerant canola plants that are transgenic. The concern is that if this gene transfers to invasive weeds, this will result in superweeds that can't be killed. This happened about eight years ago in Alberta when they found wild canola plants that are resistant to three types of herbicides."

Think of it as the horticultural version of a comic book supervillain origin story.

So here's how, in theory, the gene can prevent GMOs from affecting wild or organic crops: the gene that Sherif's team found in the peach tree keeps the plant's flowers from blooming, resulting in the plant having no choice but to pollinate itself rather than rely on cross-pollination. Since the flowers stay closed, forces like wind and bees cannot spread the gene's pollen to other plants. If the flowers of GMOs crops don't bloom, then their DNA would be contained in their field.


Think of it as the horticultural version of a comic book supervillain origin story.

Still, this won't work for every crop. For one thing, the plant must have both female and male reproductive parts to begin with, and the parts have to be compatible. Corn, for example, has both male (the tassel) and female (the silk) parts, but still needs another corn plant to breed.

"Organic farms are feeling this kind of crisis because they cannot have any traces of GMOs in their plants," says Sherif. "These farms are paying tons of money for that guarantee. But if they have a canola or soybean farm close by, and it's transgenic, the pollen can transfer from miles away."

Sherif's team was successful in testing out this theory in tobacco plants, into which they inserted the gene. The plant's flowers stayed closed without compromising its ability to procreate. But it's still too early to see whether the technique could be put to commercial use, as Sherif says more research needs to be done to see if other genes are involved and what other crops it would work on. He adds that he's looking into the canola plant, as well as collaborating with the USDA to see if the gene could be applied to control the spread of a type of pesticide-resistant plum.

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In addition to preventing contamination, making plants self-pollinate may be one (albeit not the best) solution to declining bee populations. "We're looking at the constantly changing ecology," says Jay Subramanian, associate professor in plant agriculture at the university and Sherif's advisor on the project. "Some of the world's helpers of agriculture aren't in the numbers they used to be, like honeybees. So in 20, 30, 40 years from now, technology like this will ensure that we don't run out of food."

Of course, the irony of using biotechnology to stop the spread of GM crops is not lost on the scientists. "GM isn't completely accepted in the public, but whether we like it or not it looks like it's here to stay," says Subramanian. "This will still be a GM when you put a gene in it, and it has to go through all the protocols before a crop uses this gene. As scientists, we have to weigh out the pros and cons, the risks, and there's a lot of red tape before any of this can see daylight."

"We're not saying that this is the gene that'll take care of everything," says Sherif. "We're saying that this gene can contain it. Whether or not we go with GMO, I think it's kind of indispensable right now. If we're talking about 2050, we're looking at nine billion people and you have different strings of pathogens, stresses like droughts and frost, you need more plant varieties that are resistant to these things."

"There is no way you can do this through classical breeding, the kind of breeding you did 100 years ago," he says. "Classical breeding for tree fruits, for instance, takes at least 50 years in order to get one variety of peach or apple to be resistant to one pathogen. But with transgenic, it takes about a year. The question is how to take care of the whole land, and how to contain these plants."