GMOs of the Future: Two Recent Studies Reveal Potential of Genetic Technologies

By Christie Wilcox | March 31, 2015 8:01 am

For four years, the state of California has experienced a devastating drought. It’s not just a little dry—according to scientists, it’s the worst drought in over a millennium, fueled by global climate change. Cali is in such dire straits that Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. just signed two emergency measures to funnel another $1 billion to drought relief and critical water infrastructure projects. No sector is feeling the hit more than Golden State’s agricultural industry, where the shortage of water has already cost farmers billions. And California’s drought is just the beginning; scientists predict severe and widespread droughts globally in the next 30 to 90 years. Given that the world’s farmers account for 75% of our freshwater use, these droughts will cause massive losses in crop production unless the agricultural industry as a whole can find a way to maintain production with less water input.

It’s a puzzle that genetic engineers are eager to solve.

Drought-resistance has been one of the top priorities for genetic engineers, but for decades, frustratingly few viable products have emerged. Monanto’s DroughtGard corn is the only commercially available GM designed to withstand dwindling water supplies, and it has only just been released. Now, scientists are unlocking the secrets of efficient water use in plants’ genomes.

“We now have genetic tools to pre-adapt crops to future, drier climates,” said Peter Franks, Faculty of Agriculture and Environment at the University of Sydney and lead author of a study released this month in New Phytologist. “The goal here is to maintain or improve productivity with less water.”

And improve it they have. Their recent paper details how the overexpression of one gene — epidermal patterning factor 2 (EPF2) — gave Arabidopsis thalania plants (a kind of mustard green) an edge in drier environments.

The mustard green Arabidosis thaliana is a model organisms, and now, scientists have made a drought-resistant version by changing the regulation of one gene.

The mustard green Arabidopsis thaliana is a model organism, and now, scientists have made a drought-resistant version by changing the regulation of one gene. Photo via Wikipedia

EPF2 encodes for a small peptide which helps regulate the number of stomata, tiny pores in leaves which allow for gas exchange. These little holes also allow water vapor to escape, and thus plants with more stomata tend to use more water while those with fewer are more efficient. By manipulating the expression of EPF2 genetically, the team was able to create a modified plant with fewer stomata per leaf which, as expected, used less water. But most importantly, their new variety was able to use less water without sacrificing the plant’s photosynthetic ability or reproduction, especially in a high carbon dioxide atmosphere. In other words, they created a mustard green that will thrive in our dry, CO2-filled future.

Much of the current criticism of GMOs rests on the currently-available varieties, dominated by RoundUp Ready (herbicide-resistant) and Bt (pesticide-producing) varieties. But these crops are hardly good measures of the potential for genetic technologies.

Even within the current GM categories, scientists are making advances that result in more even environmentally-friendly products. For example, scientists from the Max-Planck Institute in Germany reported a novel anti-pest potato plant in Science last month. This new GMO is able to fight off the Colorado potato beetle, a beast referred to as an “international superpest” because it has evolved resistance to all major insecticide classes over the past century. But it doesn’t kill by producing a general pesticide like Bt crops; instead, it produces very special insecticidal RNAs which kill only the potato beetles and nothing else.

The plant kills its pest by taking advantage of RNA interference (RNAi), which is an innate genetic mechanism to suppress gene expression found in many species. Double-stranded RNA in cells is cut by an enzyme called Dicer into small chunks about 21 nucleotides long, referred to as short interfering RNAs (siRNAs). These siRNAs bind to any RNA molecules with complementary chunks, essentially placing a target on the RNA molecule. A set of cellular components referred to as RNA-induced silencing complex then zero in on these RNA molecules and destroy them.

Geneticists outside the agricultural industry have been using RNAi for years now to produce varieties of organisms that lack certain genes to model certain diseases or uncover the uses for certain proteins. Now, agricultural scientists are learning how to get plants to produce dsRNAs that are harmless to them but deadly to pests that eat their leaves.

The German team created potato plants that produce dsRNAs designed to target two genes in the beetle that are absolutely essential for survival (β-actin and Shrub). It’s not the first transgenic plant to use RNAi as a pest control mechanism, but it’s the first to produce the insecticidal RNAs in the chloroplasts instead of the main cells, thus avoiding the plant’s own RNA chopping Dicer. By moving the inserted genes to the chloroplasts, the team was able to kill potato beetles with unmatched efficiency.

Explanation of how moving the genes into chloroplasts leads to more effective insecticidal RNAi.

A brief explanation of how moving the genes into chloroplasts leads to more effective insecticidal RNAi. Illustration from Whynard 2015.

“Shifting the target of transgenesis from the nucleus to the plastid removes the major hurdle on the way to exploiting transgenically delivered RNAi for efficient plant protection in the field,” explain the authors in their conclusions. But the best part is that insecticidal RNAs are specific to the species targeted and are not proteins, thus are not allergenic to people.  “The dsRNA approach provides plant protection without chemicals and without synthesis of foreign proteins in the plant.”

That last part is especially important given that public support of GMOs is currently abysmal, as many harbor unsubstantiated fears that genetic manipulation will have dire, unforeseen consequences. To succeed, the GMOs of tomorrow must find a way to alleviate such fears.

These two recent studies represent just a tiny subset of the diversity of issues genetic engineers hope to use biotechnology solve. In addition to drought and pests, crops are being designed to fight malnutrition and produce vaccines.

There’s no doubt that the next generation of GM crops will look very little like the oft-maligned varieties available today. The possibilities are nearly limitless, as are the rewards. And with the world’s climate changing rapidly, there’s no doubt that agriculture will need to change with it, to keep pace with an unpredictable environment. The future of agriculture may very well depend on the ingenuity of geneticists and the GMOs they create. The real question is, will these new varieties be able to do what current ones cannot: win over the hearts and minds of the people they’re designed for.


Franks P.J., Tim Doheny-Adams, Zoe J. Britton-Harper & Julie E. Gray (2015). Increasing water-use efficiency directly through genetic manipulation of stomatal density, New Phytologist. DOI:

Zhang J., C. Hasse, S. Ruf, D. G. Heckel & R. Bock (2015). Full crop protection from an insect pest by expression of long double-stranded RNAs in plastids, Science, 347: 991-994. DOI:

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts
  • Uncle Al

    Any agricultural commodity can be a gene-gineered Garden of Eden. RuBisCO is the carbon fixation bottleneck, the slowest, least efficient enzyme on Earth. Increasing farm output 10-fold for the same inputs is a carefully forbidden triviality.

    California Governor Moonbeam’s “$1 billion to drought relief” adds not a drop of water to delivery or inventory. It is a monetary sop thrown to his good buddies. California’s 2015 state debt is $778 billion,
    If it were GDP, it would be the 19th largest in the world, equal to Saudi Arabia.

    California’s debt is secured by the Central Valley’s brobdingnagian agricultural productivity and slave labor. In 2013 it grew 566,000 acres of rice in desert(!), 2.4 million tons of rice harvested,

    Remove Noahian irrigation and the Central Valley grows nothing. That is $44.7 billion/year ended. Gut California’s treasury now, get every loan you can, for in two years the whole state will be a panic garage sale.

    The future of agriculture may very well depend on the ingenuity of geneticists and the GMOs they create” The heavens will cleave asunder; bodies will rise from the graves, be clothed in flesh, and qualify for Welfare. Medicare, and Meals on Wheels.

  • Ryan B

    We should be building pipelines for water instead of just for gas and oil. They are burning off natural gas as waste in North Dakota because they have no where to send it. We could use that natural gas to power pumps that bring fresh water from areas of plenty to areas of need. By the time we figure this out, we will be in a real pickle with food production.

  • KósmσZo̱an

    Great article. Given how much GMOs can benefit the world food output, preventing their use is not just crazy, it’s immoral.

    • Carson Goodwin

      I feel that GMOs are a good thing and they are important to our modern way of life, but we need to put laws and limits to how far we can take them.


    If potential of #GMOs are understood to benefit agriculture, learned society should also stand up when GMO technology is misused for exploiting society.

    • Brenda Diederich

      Do you have any instances of misuse? I was thinking of the wonders of insulin and how many thousands of people it has helped with diabetes…besides our wonderful crops.


        Herbicide resistance GM technology is misused by Seed Giants for promoting complimentary usage of carcinogenic glyphosate & food monopoly

        • Brenda Diederich

          I meant REAL instances. I see Whole Foods having a monopoly….but ‘seed giants’ don’t sell food and glyphosate is much safer than older products.


            To my knowledge Food comes from Seeds.

          • Tim Doheny-Adams

            It is profitable for a company to engineer herbicide resistant plants and sell both the seed and the herbicide. I don’t really understand how this is misuse unless said company sells a herbicide which they know to cause significant harm to humans/ecosystem at the concentrations used. It is not an issue about GM at all but one about company ethics and legislation. As Brenda stated, many pesticides currently used are safer than older products and those which are deemed unsafe are being replaced (in the EU at least).


            Profit is different from the greed, If technologies that were intended to be humanitarian are found distorting livelihood and risking human life I prefer saying it as misuse of technology and a learned society should need to stand up against greed.

          • Tim Doheny-Adams

            I think this is a very general problem and not one about GM technology. If you are targeting greed you would do better to spend your energy trying to change they way banking works, or making sure large multinationals pay taxes or any number of other things where greed is much more blatant and damaging.

          • Herne Webber

            One instance of misuse is sueing and winning in court against neighboring farms whose crops end up pollinated by the GM crop. Monsanto won a court case over their proprietary wheat, disallowing a farmer from growing his next year’s wheat from his own fields’ seeds! Now he either has to buy their seeds, or if using seeds from another company, he still has to use their pesticide. That is monopolising an industry, and History indicates such things tend toward the bad.

            The author of the article is very keen on the science being the panacea for all our ills. She is basically falling into the desperate trap of believing that science will save us all from the worst of our own habits, so she does not mention the competing ideas of infrastructure (water pipelines), desalination using Green Energy, or even the ‘radical’ idea of our species reducing our own population. Of course, I realise this article is a digest, not a paper in itself, so perhaps I might lower my expectations, except that everything surrounding Climate Change is so desperately important, it seems almost criminal not mentioning parallel (not necessarily competing) tracks of development.

          • Tim Doheny-Adams

            Schmeiser was found to have knowingly planted roundup ready crops on his land in three separate court cases. Monsanto does sue farmers for saving seed and replanting the next year but they don’t, as far as I know, try to sue for accidental contamination!

            Completely agree with what you say about the limitations of GM technology (or other scientific fixes) to save us from issues related to climate change. What is really needed is a shift in people’s habits – eating less meat, choosing locally sourced food, taking the train instead of the car, car sharing or even better: cycling etc. etc.

        • Benjamin Edge

          So now it’s a *known* carcinogen? Even the IARC didn’t say that.

  • Jennifer Eckhart

    Studies have shown that the Bt (bacterial toxin bacillus thuringiensis) from GMO foods, can survive. GMO corn feed to cows, cows then butchered, cooked and eaten by pregnant women, Bt shows up in their newborns. Also, non-GMO plants exceed nutrition times over compared to GMO in a 2012 nutritional analysis. They aren’t saving the world. That’s the marketing line they use to suck us in.


      Recent studies from the National Academy of Sciences found that GMOs are safe to eat and that Bt even if it survives which is a rare chance, It will not harm or change the DNA of a unborn child, Furthermore GMOs have significantly increased the production of Crops from 120 million hectares to over 160 million hectares which was observed in over 30 countries including the United States. The only thing for consumer if verification if it GMO or no.

  • Diep_Thinker

    Great article. But I must point out that you misspelled “Monsanto” in the third paragraph!


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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.


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