Over the last three days I attended the Symposium on Molecular Biology and Genomics of Tree Fruit Crops, in Wuhan, China. It was a great opportunity to see the clever implementation of new technologies to solve contemporary problems in these valuable specialty crops.
The Molecular Biology and Genomics of Tree Fruits Conference in Wuhan, China.
A subtext was a scathing indictment of the anti-GMO movement.
There were several common themes, but one was quite strong-- transgenic (GMO) solutions for important problems exist, but it is impossible to implement them. Scientists from all over the world discussed the potential of the technology to lower environmental impact, create better products for humans, or soften hardship for farmers. They also discussed the misinformation that has now spread from the EU and USA to places like China, where people are now afraid of the technology (more on this next time).
The bottom line is that genomics technologies are being used of identify genes that are important to processes such as disease resistance, flavors, insect resistance, yield, and many other traits. Now once you know the gene that can solve the problem in a fruit tree you can spend the next 50 years breeding it in (fruit trees take some time to reach flowering) or you can simply add the gene to an already solid genetic background. If it was feasible. It is feasible in most crops (peach, for example, cannot be transformed), but scientists know that for the cost of development, testing and deregulation it is not possible.
We spend time finding solutions that cannot be used. Here are a few:
1. Anti-microbial peptides that provide resistance to HLB or Citrus Greening. Trees expressing this protein tolerate the disease better, and while still infected remain productive. HLB now infects 70% of Florida trees and is found worldwide.
2. Overexpression of a protein central to Systemic Acquired Resistance for HLB. Plants that are made to overproduce a protein involved in plant immune response also grow well in the presence of the disease.
3. Apple trees with the ATTICIN protein expressed are resistant to fire blight. Fire blight, caused by Erwinia species of bacteria, is a disease that causes problems in apples and pears. Management requires massive application of copper and streptomycin, 12-30 applications per season. A transgenic (GMO) solution makes the tree less susceptible and may cut application of antibiotics.
4. A gene to make fruits taste better without sugar. Data were shown about a peach-flavor controlling gene that would increase the consumption of fruit by making it taste sweeter and fruitier.
5. Genes to enhance antioxidant accumulation in citrus and apple. Data were presented on the genes and underlying mutations that control fruit pigmentation that increases their healthful properties.
Researchers continually noted the inability to practically use these findings because of the undercurrent of anti-GMO sentiment that makes it impossible for researchers to develop products that could solve problems. They stressed the misinformation and activism that keeps good solutions from becoming reality.
One scientist, Dr. Yi Li, has developed a way to delete the inserted genes from the genome. He described a brilliant way to add a transgene and then have it removed in the pollen by a recombination event so that it is not transmitted. Great science! The added gene pops out and leaves 86 DNA bases behind.
One researcher raised his hand afterwards and said, "I applaud your efforts, but do you think the people that don't think scientifically will accept your 86 base pair addition to the genome?"
The crowd laughed and the Dr. Li said, "Probably not."
This was a fruit tree crop meeting. It was scientists from all over the world. There was no Monsanto. There is no influence from any Big Ag company. Nobody here gets research support or other funding from these companies.
These are the people that were charged to find solutions and now that they have them, they cannot use them. While it was sad to hear this universal complaint, it was good to see that all universally share the frustration. Anti-GMO perspectives were not always being discussed at professional meetings, but now everyone is starting to see how anti-scientific activism affects their research and its ability to help their countries, their environment and their fellow citizens.