The verdict on genetically modified crops is still not settled globally, with some countries allowing their use and some wary of their potential environmental impact.
A new process might make the promise of scientific advancement in food production more digestible. Scientists from the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science (CSRS) in Japan, have developed a way to improve crop quality with no genetic modification needed.
Rather than altering the plant DNA in seed form, this alternative uses active biomolecules in the form of a spray applied to grown plants to create the same end result. To achieve this, scientists utilized nanoparticles called cell-penetrating peptides (CPPs) which are small enough to successfully penetrate plant cells.
Through the biomolecules binding to the plant’s DNA, the plant’s gene expression (the process of using genetic information to make a new product) was able to be altered in multiple ways: from influencing yield, increasing the number of pores for water uptake, which is good for drought resistance, and fighting off parasites. In other words, instead of rewriting the plant’s genetic code which would affect all of its descendants, this process just tweaks how an individual plant interacts with its environment in a targeted way. Details of exactly how the technology works were included in the team’s paper, published in ACS Nano.
What makes this treatment incredible is its ability to accurately target certain genes thanks to a DNA attachment called a plasmid. This specific plasmid sequence means the nanoparticles will only alter the particular plant it is applied to. Plus, the protein product can break down naturally in the wild. As the biomolecule spray could reduce or even replace pesticides and fertilizers, this technique could be extremely useful to reduce the negative environmental impact of farming.