In August 2013, 400 protesters toppled fences as they rushed to uproot a plot of rice in the Philippines. The plot looked like any other but had its green shoots been allowed to flower, the crop would have assumed a bright yellow hue. It’s called “Golden Rice,” thanks to the beta carotene it contains, the result of infusing it with extra genes from corn and a bacterium. Beta carotene is a source of vitamin A.
The nonprofit International Rice Research Institute says Golden Rice could help 1.7 million Filipino children who suffer from vitamin A deficiency, a leading cause of preventable blindness in children and a source of fatal immune disorders. Vitamin A deficiency afflicts 250 million preschool children worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Although the bioengineering of rice isn’t popular among activists, other interventions, including wider distribution of vitamin supplements, are expensive and difficult to implement.
It’s why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation endowed University of Illinois researchers with $25 million in 2012, hoping scientists can bioengineer productive plants for Africa and Southeast Asia, where changes in climate and demographics could spark famines in coming decades.
Fifteen years after widespread use of genetically modified crops began in the U.S, researchers at Illinois are hacking photosynthesis to improve crop efficiency and pumping up the oil content of sugar cane to develop new sources of biofuel.
They are creating tools many agronomists agree will be needed to feed 9 billion people by 2050.
Their work is endorsed by leading science and nutrition experts. Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and National Academy of Sciences have concluded GMOs are as safe as their traditional counterparts. Likewise, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has said, “The science is quite clear: Crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.”
Even scientists in the European Union—where GMOs are most heavily regulated—haven’t discovered any risks associated with bioengineered foods.
These findings continue to be met with skepticism among some. Each spring, when UI professor of crop sciences Stephen Moose teaches the 200-level course “Biotechnology in Agriculture,” students invariably express concern about the wholesomeness of bioengineered products. It’s why he instructs them to read one of the 200-plus-page dossiers biotech companies must submit to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for regulatory approval.
“I’ve had a few [students] drop the course when they learn the facts don’t agree with their point of view,” says Moose.
Those views are informed by activists who contend GMOs pose a risk to human health and the environment. At the heart of their critique is anxiety about a process they deem “unnatural” and under the thumb of huge multinational corporations. Although the protesters raise legitimate questions of ownership and regulation surrounding this emerging and still largely misunderstood technology, they are attacking the messenger and missing the science.
Illuminating Nature’s black box
The fact is, “All plant breeding depends on genetic modification,” write Bruce Chassy, UI professor emeritus of food science, and his University of Georgia colleague Wayne Parrott. In fact, genetic similarities are greater among transgenic plants—those with added or altered genes—than among different generations of conventionally bred plants.
“Genetic engineering is the most precise and predictable of available breeding methods, [yielding] the fewest unintended and potentially undesirable changes [in] plants,” they write.
“Mother Nature is a black box,” Chassy adds. “Genetic engineering makes it less dark.”
He recalls reading an article in 1973 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, announcing the creation of the world’s first transgenic bacterium. “I went down to my lab chief and said, ‘This is gonna be important,’” Chassy says. “He gave me sort of carte blanche to start a program.”
Twenty years later, transgenic plants remained an anomaly, accounting for only 2 percent of U.S. corn crops. Today, they make up more than three-quarters of it. Worldwide, approximately 20 percent of fields harvest GMOs, says Robb Fraley ’74 LAS, MS ’76 LAS, PHD ’79 LAS, chief technology officer at Monsanto Co.
To contend with pests, science deployed the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, an organism poisonous to many insects upon ingestion. “Bt” has been commercially available for decades and is widely implemented on organic farms. Transgenic Bt crops are a more recent phenomenon and produce proteins poisonous only to agricultural pests.
This single modification has helped farmers increase total U.S. corn yields by 5 percent, even as researchers seek to further tap Bt’s potential.
The success of Bt
When you visit the office of Fred Below ’78 ACES, MS ’81 ACES, PHD ’83 ACES, a professor in the University’s Department of Crop Sciences, one of the first things you notice is the corn—corn dolls smiling through corn hats and corn-silk dresses, dangling their feet over lab benches; corn-shaped light switch covers; whiteboard magnets holding up small woven baskets for markers (in the shape of an ear of corn, of course). Such totems are common alongside microscopes and soil maps in the offices of agricultural scientists. Pity the unphotogenic soybean.
Below’s charge is to field-test new biotech crops to see how effective their new traits really are. He recently confirmed that Bt corn demonstrates a superior ability to absorb nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, in addition to fending off rootworm—a ravenous pest responsible for $1 billion in U.S. corn crop damage annually.
“The value of rootworm [resistance] is the sum total of all the wondrous things that roots do—they take up water, take up mineral nutrients, produce certain growth regulators, anchor the plant to the soil,” says Below. “So this one trait has a cascade effect on the plant’s growth”
But more needs to be done to raise the rate of grain production 70 percent by 2050, as recommended by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. “That’s more production than we’ve seen in the entire history of agriculture,” he says.
Last year at the National Corn Growers Association’s annual Corn Yield Contest—a Mr. Universe of sorts for corn production—Georgia farmer Randy Dowdy coaxed out 503 bushels per acre, a record. The achievement may not be easily replicated, but U.S. agronomists are targeting average yields of 300 bushels of corn per acre, almost double the current average of 158.8.
“I don’t think [UNFAO goals] can be achieved with conventional breeding alone,” says Stephen P. Long, a professor at U of I’s Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. He is among those enlisted by the Gates Foundation to address chronic hunger and malnutrition in poorer nations.
Progress won’t come easily, though. “Twenty years ago, the Chinese were increasing rice yields at a rate of 30 percent per decade,” Long says. This past decade, yields increased by approximately 1 percent, even after China greatly increased its investment and technological capability. “It just becomes harder and harder,” Long says, to make further yield increases.
To boost productivity, agriculture must become more efficient. Gates grant recipient Don Ort, a UI professor of plant biology, is attempting to improve crop efficiency by battling evolution on an acre of land between campus and University of Illinois Willard Airport. Instead of growing rows of dark green soybeans, he and other grant recipients are bioengineering specimens of a lighter hue, similar to the color of celadon pottery.
“Evolution selects for traits that make individual plants good competitors,” says Ort. “For agriculture, we want good neighbors.”
The paler hue will allow sunlight, a vital ingredient of photosynthesis, to more readily penetrate the field’s underlying layers. As with other plants, much of the sunlight soybeans receive is wasted, particularly on top leaves, which get more than they can use. Underlying leaves, by comparison, are exposed to too little, starved by the higher layers. Computer models, meanwhile, indicate some crops need only about one-third of the green-pigmented chlorophyll they currently receive to optimize photosynthesis.
Paler pigments could help improve crop efficiency by up to 60 percent, Ort says. To date, he and colleagues also have reduced pigmentation in tobacco, sorghum and sugar cane, though only soybeans have been field tested.
Another potential method to enhance photosynthesis involves reducing the amount of energy required to eliminate waste generated by oxygen, a byproduct of photosynthesis. Some bacteria, Ort says, can contend with the waste more efficiently than the plant itself. “It’s fairly easily done with tobacco,” he says, “but it’s never been done in any grass—rice, [corn], any of the cereals.”
Should individual modifications succeed, they might also work in concert. Ort and Long “stack” solutions as they develop, seeking to establish a balance of traits achievable only with biotechnology.
Diesel fuel from sugar cane
Rather than improve crop efficiency, other branches of bioengineering seek to develop new organic-based biofuels—gasoline substitutes typically associated with corn ethanol.
Supported by ARPA-E, a program of the Advanced Research Projects Agency and U.S. Department of Energy, U of I’s Moose is bioengineering sugar cane and other energy crops to make them better sources of fuel. If he and his colleagues succeed, they could help reduce carbon pollution generated by transportation and agriculture, which currently accounts for more than one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Some of the work involves standard practices, including a focus on “sustainability traits” such as drought tolerance and nitrogen-use efficiency. Other research involves more fundamental modifications, such as replacing sugar with oil in sugar cane and sorghum.
“No grass on the planet makes oil in its stem,” says Moose, “or at least none that we know of.”
The ARPA-E team already is making progress with small flowering rock cress, yielding specimens whose oil content accounts for 1.5 percent of the stem’s dry weight—approximately 50 times more than conventional plants. Researchers believe they can yield 10 times more in sugar cane or sorghum, given both are much bulkier than rock cress, the lab rat of the plant world.
Though Brazil grows sugar cane widely for biofuel, the U.S. grows it only in the Deep South. By crossing sugar cane with the grass miscanthus, Moose believes cold-tolerant varieties could be planted in the nation’s northern regions.
For now, says Long, the greatest prospects lie in the Southeast, where some 23 million acres have fallen out of agricultural production in recent decades, unable to maintain pace with the Midwest and global breadbaskets. According to Long, biofuel production could give the region a second act. “If we can achieve these crops,” he says, “that acreage could produce about half the liquid fuel the U.S. requires for transportation.”
Seeds of change
Half a world away, Golden Rice trials continue in the Philippines. As early as this year, the nation could become the first to approve commercial production of the crop. GMO opponents are calling for a national ban.
Lulu Rodriguez, head of the agricultural communications program at the University, calls national bans on genetically modified foods “a scandal.” She cites the example of Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa, who famously refused food aid in 2002 because the U.S. shipment included genetically modified crops.
On the ground the situation is much different. Rodriguez says that in West Africa, Ghanaian cotton farmers have even considered walking across the border to Burkina Faso, where farmers have planted insect-resistant cotton—currently the largest introduction of biotechnology in Africa. “Even in the absence of any kind of a regulatory mechanism, farmers are willing to experiment,” she says. “Genetic engineering is one of the things that needs to be done.”
Professor emeritus Chassy now spends more time skiing than sequencing DNA, though he maintains a blog, gmoanswers.com, from his home overlooking the Pend Oreille River in northern Idaho. From there, he can afford to take the long view. More than 40 years after running to tell his lab chief about the world’s first transgenic organism, he says, “We’re just beginning to open the door to where we can go with this technology.”