Think it’s scary that geneticists are altering the genetic code of animals to make them glow in the dark? Then you’ll love knowing that you’ve probably been ingesting and cohabitating with genetically modified plants without even knowing it. While some have practical purposes, others aren’t quite what we’d consider a “necessity.”
Land Mine Detecting Plants
While wars may end, weaponry used during them don’t just vanish. Specifically speaking, landmines are still found during times of peace from wars that have long ended. Danish researchers at Aresa Biodetection claimed in 2004 to have developed a plant that changes color when introduced to compounds often leaked from landmines. The current cost of detecting and clearing landmines is upwards of $2,000 per mine, but the introduction of such a plant could reduce the value greatly. Coupled with new drones that are designed to seek out signs of landmines, these plants could help save both lives and money.
Super carbon-capturing plants
As carbon-producing lifeforms, we humans need a counterpart to help absorb the 9 gigatons of carbon that we produce annually. Of that 9, approximately 5 is absorbed by plant life, leaving 4 gigatons of carbon left to pollute our atmosphere, leading to fears of global warming and the greenhouse effect. To take care of that remaining 4 gigatons, researchers have turned to genetically engineering plants, focusing specifically on creating bioenergy crops with large roots to capture and store carbon. Compared to the leaves, branches, and flowers of plants, the root can house carbon for a much longer period of time, greatly reducing the amount left over.
Genetically modified trees
Trees are far from exempt from human tampering. Take, for instance, rubber cork trees and trees used for paper. For the rubber cork tree, it was all a matter of consumer desire. Wine enthusiasts, displeased with the introduction of the rubber cork, sought an alternative. SABIC innovative plastics modified the rubber tree, which rubber corks were made from, and spliced them with the cork tree. The product was a tree that produces a cork that falls in-between rubber and cork. In regards to paper production, scientists at University of British Columbia, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michigan State University have engineered trees that are easier to break down for the creation of paper and biofuels, leading to less pollutants during production.
It’s going to be difficult to market cabbage spliced with a scorpion venom created virus, but that is one of the many genetically engineered plants on the horizon. While we’re conditioned to fear getting stung by a scorpion, the venom being interlaced with heads of cabbage will not be harmless to humans… or so we hope. Instead, the target in this scenario is caterpillars. The scorpion make-up will rapidly introduce a nerve poison into the dining caterpillar, causing it to become paralyzed, allowing the virus to kill it. Early trials showed that the engineered virus was fatal to dozens of species of butterflies and moths, leaving many to question just how ecologically safe venomous cabbage really is.
High levels of pollutants are a growing concern for much of the world and part of the answer may be in an unexpected source. Scientists and researchers have begun to look at grass and trees as an alternate and inexpensive means of battling toxins; but to do so, a little genetic modification will be needed. The process of using plants to cleanse the environment is not a new one, but phytoremediation is considered too slow and clean-up is too costly. The engineered plants have shown quicker processing of the carcinogens, leading to the hope that phytoremediation will be a suitable means of pollutant clean-up in the future.
Cancer Fighting Tomatoes
Though the tomato has been associated with helping stave off prostate cancer, a series of genetic modifications have produced something that may be quite a bit more beneficial. The purple tomato, initially grown in a Leamington, Ontario greenhouse, has been altered to produce a higher level of anthocyanins, an antioxidant typically found in blueberries, plums, and blackberries. Anthocyanins is not only responsible for the purple color of these fruits, but is also believed to fight off cancer. Initial testing of the purple tomato performed on mice had shown a lifespan increase of 30% than those on a diet of plain red tomatoes.
Despite popular belief, household bananas are not genetically-modified, despite looking nothing like their wild counterparts. That doesn’t mean there aren’t GMO versions of the fruit out there, tough; in fact, scientists have moved forward in creating what is being dubbed a “super-banana”. Though they look like their untouched common, household fruit, the engineered end product has increased levels of vitamin A. The modification was done in hopes of helping the thousands that succumb annually to fatal vitamin A deficiencies. By 2020, researchers hope to have the product in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, pending trials in the United States.
Flavr Savr Tomato
It’s hard to ignore the very “informercial-esque” name of this genetically modified tomato, and there’s a chance it had something to do with the eventual failure of this long-lasting version of the popular vegetable.. or fruit. Flavr Savr tomatoes, developed by the now-defunct Calgene, were created to have a longer shelf-life and a stronger exterior, which would allow them to be harvested without worry of damage to the product. In the end, though the tomato proved to last longer, it still retained its softness and had to be handled as any other red tomato. An advancement in flavor down the line caused a jump in Flavr Savr pricing and, over time, both Calgene and its staple product vanished.
Ever cut into an apple and set it aside for a minute? By the time you turn back to your fresh fruit, it’s already started to look a little worse for wear. The browning process, or oxidation of the apple is very rapid, but there’s a cure-all in a genetically modified version produced by Okanagan Specialty Fruits in Canada. These specially created Arctic Golden and Arctic Granny apples are developed through a gene-silencing process that negates the chemical reaction responsible for the browning process. As of 2015, the US Department of Agriculture decided to deregulate the engineered apples, starting a long road to consumer consumption in the future.
The corn-borer is a nightmare insect, specifically for farmers specializing in growing maize. Thanks to genetic modifications to regular corn, corn that may be in your refrigerator right now, the corn-borer is no longer a big issue. This genetically altered crop produces the Bt protein, which acts as an insecticide against the crop’s biggest enemy. To avoid the borer from evolving a natural immunity against the protein, crops are required to be a ratio of 80% of the GM plants to 20% of regular corn. Introduced in 1996, the modified corn has benefited farmers in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin, saving an estimated $7 billion in total.