Can We Genetically Alter Crops After Planting? Scientists Think We Can

Oregon State University/Flickr

This method could open the door for real-time response to environmental threats, from insects to diseases to drought.

A Penn-State led research team is gearing up to test a novel approach to genetically modifing crops - altering genes after the plants are in the ground. As food security remains a chief concern in many parts of the world, this method could open the door for real-time responses to various environmental threats, from insects to diseases to drought - saving both crops and human lives.

“Currently there is not much a farmer can do to save a crop if weather forecasting predicts a severe drought for the next month," [project director Wayne] Curtis said. "Even if it’s possible to develop a plant variety that can overcome one type of stress, the nature of new diseases and pests threatens to outpace improvements provided by traditional breeding and genetic modifications."

Scientists will be enlisting insects as an ally in the process:

The team’s approach focuses on reducing the risk of off-target effects by blocking the virus from replicating. To accomplish this, researchers working in a greenhouse environment will use whiteflies to deliver deconstructed viruses encoding beneficial genes into mature tomato plants, with a timing and specificity that improves the plants’ natural stress response to drought and disease.

The researchers are being supported through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as part of its Insect Allies program.

“Food security is the foundation of societal stability that is often taken for granted," Curtis said. "DARPA’s investment in this technology development recognizes this importance.”