Our crops can be improved faster and easier than we previously thought, Utrecht scientists demonstrate. We can manipulate the genes of bacteria that live around plants. This insight offers opportunities for global food security.
By Olga Reukova
Plant breeding – a method of selecting plants from a group that have the desired properties – is central to the debate on how to keep feeding all the mouths in the world responsibly . To date, scientists have focused on the genes in the plant itself, a process known as GMO .
This process is very time consuming. Researchers at Utrecht University recently found a faster way to breed crops .
Instead of focusing on the genes of the plant, you can also focus on the genes of the bacteria that live around plants. The researchers believe that modifying these genes is not only faster, but also cheaper than traditional breeding.
Lower price tag
Plants – just like humans – live in a complex collaboration with all kinds of bacteria. This concept was already known and is called the holobiont in technical terms . Mohammad Ravanbakhsh and his team found that not only the plant itself, but also the holobiont can be modified to achieve the desired plant characteristics.
However, changing the genes of bacteria is much faster and there is also a lower price tag. ‘When you grow bacteria, spontaneous mutants develop very quickly,’ says Alexandre Jousset , one of the researchers. ‘For this study we have developed a framework with which we can manipulate the genes of the bacteria that live around plants.’
The researchers emphasize that this method is not GMO and can therefore simply be applied in agriculture and horticulture. Why is this so important? Is GMO so harmful? No, says Richard Visser , professor of plant breeding at Wageningen University.
‘There are no specific problems with GMO. I even dare to say that GMO crops are better controlled than regular crops. ‘ According to Visser, the problem is that GMO in Europe, and also in parts in Africa and Asia, has been put in a bad light by all kinds of protests.
But as far as he is concerned you cannot really call the approach GMO-free. ‘Formally it is GMO. However, these modifications in bacteria are exempt, because you cannot show the difference between natural and man-made mutations. ‘
Not the solution to all problems
Visser claims that it will take a while before we can apply this technique on a larger scale. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if each crop requires specific microorganisms to achieve the desired effect. That still requires a lot of time and research. ‘
That does not alter the fact that he is enthusiastic about the results of the study. ‘I can imagine that this technique, in combination with all kinds of other developments in agriculture and horticulture, will contribute to food security. But it is certainly not the solution to all problems. ‘
Originally published at new scientist