Everyone from religious scholars to British lords seems to have an opinion on genetically modified foods — whether it is that they are “Frankensteinian” or that they are creations revealing the promise of biotechnology in the service of humanity.

With the recent publication of a technique to genetically engineer rice and other crops to improve their yields, while also making them more tolerant to drought and temperature stresses, the fortunes of genetic technology would seem to be ever rising.

Moreover, the new technique is apparently safe. The biologists responsible, Ajay Garg and Ray Wu from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., emphasized that their method involves adding genes to plants that allow them to synthesize a naturally occurring sugar called trehalose. Critics of GM foods should be satisfied because the chemical composition of the edible parts of plants, such as rice grains, remains unchanged.

Add to that the news that rather than seeking profit from their discovery, Garg and Wu are putting the information in the public domain, and it would seem that GM foods have had their best PR in years.

The biologists described their new strategy to help plants overcome three of the main causes of crop failure in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “We have demonstrated the feasibility of engineering rice for increased tolerance of major environmental stresses and for enhanced productivity,” said Wu, a professor of molecular biology and genetics.

He and Garg improved stress-tolerance by introducing the genes for trehalose synthesis into Indica rice varieties, which constitute 80 percent of the global rice crop (including basmati). But the same strategy should also work for the rounder, stickier Japonica rice varieties eaten in Japan, as well as with a range of other crops, including corn, wheat, millet, soybeans and sugar cane.

Why use genes for trehalose? It is a simple sugar, derived from glucose, that is found in a wide range of organisms, where it is used to stabilize proteins, enzymes and lipids. But it is not common in plants, said Garg, except in those adapted to survive desert conditions: so-called “resurrection plants.”

“Drought-stressed resurrection plants look like they are dead and gone forever; then they pop back to life when moisture is available,” Garg said. “That’s the power of trehalose in combating stress, and it gave us an idea to help important crop plants survive stress.”

Garg and Wu fused two different genes for trehalose synthesis from the bacterium E. coli, then added custom-designed “promoter” sequences to the fused pair. Promotors control where and when genes are expressed. This means that the trehalose genes can be turned on in the transgenic plants when stresses occur, and can be regulated to make trehalose only in particular parts of the plant, such as in the leaf — but not in the edible grain.

Although the scientists are seeking patent protection of their technology, they wish to ensure that the technologies can be offered in the public domain. “Anything we can do to help crop plants cope with environmental stresses will also raise the quality and quantity of food for those who need it most,” said Wu.

The decision drew praise from Ronald Cole-Turner, professor of theology and ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. “Critics of agricultural biotechnology have often said that the results are impractical, dangerous, or only beneficial to seed companies. From now on, the critics will have to think again,” he said.

However, Cole-Turner also foresaw one disturbing consequence of improved nutrition. “If this work is as promising as it appears, then we will need to worry even more about population growth. We need to have the good sense — as well as strong encouragement from the world’s religious communities — to limit population while we have the chance.”

No one expects the controversy over GM foods to simply blow away, least of all Lord May of Oxford, president of the Royal Society. He has called for an open public debate about how GM crops would affect other plant and animal species. He also cautioned against “fundamentalist” lobby groups that “know, by dogma, instinct or political ideology that GM crops are bad.”

Although GM crops had been labeled “Frankensteinian” by lobbyists, Lord May said, the same label could easily be applied to non-GM crops.

“Pollen from ‘conventional’ crops, many of which have been produced by very high-tech methods in recent years, and which could easily be seen as Frankensteinian if you so chose, blows around, and does create hybrids. But, far from being superweeds, these are typically wimps.”

Lord May highlighted the need for the British government’s decision about the commercialization of GM crops to be based on “a real debate about values and beliefs which we should be having, against a realistic background of the possibilities that tomorrow’s agricultural biotechnology may offer.”

“I think it likely that the general public, very sensibly, will engage more fully in this debate once, as it were, GM offers a golden apple, the eating of which will make you thin and witty,” he said.

GM technology could help us “grow food more efficiently, but in ways which work with the grain of nature rather than wrenching the environment to our crops with fossil-fuel-subsidized fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.”

The Cornell trehalose work could be just the golden apple he had in mind.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.