Update from Bradley Watson and Garneisha Pinder in China: Genetic Engineering

Many of us “Greenies” have heard of Monsanto and their Genetically Modified crops that can withstand their herbicides and John Deer’s seed dispersal machinery and some of us cringe at the thought of Genetic Modification or Engineering. I did too until I spoke with a gentleman from Tanzania who shared some of the ways he would use Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). He began by talking about soy bean plants which happen to be a popular crop in Africa as well as elsewhere. The soy bean belongs to the legume family, a group of plants that are capable of taking nitrogen from the atmosphere and “fixing” it in the soil with the help of fungi that lives in their roots while most other plants rely on fertilizers and other nitrogen sources to keep them green and healthy. So a soy bean field is very fertile. This fertility encourages weed growth and many soy bean varieties are engineered to withstand high doses of pesticides to combat these weeds that compete with them for light, nutrients and water in agricultural systems. Now I don’t like the idea of using any more pesticides than are absolutely necessary because I don’t want to eat them nor do I want them on the water table etc.

Dr. Ma Sichun and I observing anerobic methanogenic bacteria under a microscope

Well my friend from Tanzania’s proposition is that we engineer soy bean plants to grow under lower light conditions or alter them in some other way so that they can compete with other plants grown in the same system. He wants to use the fertile soil created by these legumes to grow wheat at the same time for example. We don’t have the time to selectively breed a new variety of soy bean and/or wheat to provide the amounts of food we need these days but GMOs could help us achieve these goals sooner. I had never thought of them this way.

Today’s lecture was on the bacteria and archaea that produce the methane gas in a biodigester and the speaker, Dr. Lei Cheng, showed a graph of methane production against time for naturally occurring microbes and GMOs. The GMOs far out did the naturally occurring strains in gas produced per unit time, no surprise there. These GMOs could help us turn wood chips, newspaper, and straw into biogas much faster than we can now. They could make biogas production more economically feasible and push these projects beyond government subsidization. How could I avoid GMOs now?

The last and most compelling use for GMOs came from Mr. Tanzania again (he is a patriot). He mentioned the possible use of genetically modified microbes that feed on the components that make up landmines. These organisms would be modified to glow under UV light. If you seed a minefield with these guys and come back a week later with a UV light you should be able to find the spots where colonies have formed on their food source, land mines. So many countries and people suffer from these death fields left behind after conflicts. Some much money goes into training dogs and even rodents to search for mines. Useful farmland goes to waste and young, innocent children loose limbs to these hidden weapons years after the political side of the conflict has been put to rest.

If these are the possible uses for GMOs I say go for it, and quickly. The thing is, we need all the biodiversity we can save to use for our modifications.