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Recent discoveries in the field of epigenetics, or heritable information not encoded in the DNA, have revealed promising alternatives to genetic engineering. As reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2015, a team of British researchers managed to completely shut down a gene in a plant without making any modifications to its DNA sequence using a technique called RNA interference (RNAi).
This strategy cannot be applied to genes not already found in the crop of interest (RNAi can only silence, not add or enhance). RNAi can only act on genes already present in the plant genome. For example, introducing new resistance to pesticides or herbicides could never be attained through this method. However, what is attainable is the silencing of existing resistances. And as we know, weed resistance to the most common herbicides does not take long to appear when these products are used at industrial scales globally (see this article). Using RNAi to shut down such a gene would therefore restore the vulnerability of the weed to glyphosate.
Even though the targeting of small RNAs can be fine-tuned to a specific gene of a specific weed, off-target risks are a cause of concern for regulatory organizations like the European Food Safety Agency or the Environmental Protection Agency. What if the small RNAs find targets in other genes and other plant species?
RNAi strategies have tremendous potential. However, taking this new, and potentially game changing, technology from the laboratory to RNAi herbicides or epigenetically modified crops in the field, will require more proof to ease important societal concerns.
Read full, original post: Epigenetics in Plant Breeding: Hard Science, Soft Tool
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on GMOs in a special edition of the online magazine “Signal to Noise”, produced by Science in the News. You can read the entire series here: Signal to Noise Special Edition: GMOs and Our Food