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Inserting and Containing Genes

Scientists have come up with a way of keeping engineered genes from accidentally altering wild plants. Learn more on this Moment of Science.

Fresh red tomatoes

Photo: The Ewan (flickr)

Some crops, like tomatoes, have been genetically modified to improve the plant in some way, but sometimes this results in infected wild plants

Did you know that scientists can create tomatoes that resist frost by inserting a gene from cold water fish into the tomatoes’ DNA?

Genetically modified food is kind of iffy, however. For example, engineered genes in cultivated crops have accidentally infected wild plants, creating super weeds that are hard to contain and destroy.

Recently however, scientists have come up with a way of keeping engineered genes from accidentally altering wild plants.

Plants reproduce by spreading their pollen to other plants, right? In the 1980s, genetic modification researchers realized that if they could keep modified genes out of the pollen, then they wouldn’t spread into the wild.

Plant cells have a nucleus, like animals’ cells, but they also have things called chloroplasts, which are involved in photosynthesis. What interested plant geneticists about chloroplasts, is how they tend not to appear in pollen cells.

Thus the scientists could insert engineered genes into chloroplasts and keep them out of pollen, which means the genes wouldn’t spread to other plants.

Unfortunately, at the time tests showed that enough chloroplasts actually did show up in pollen to make it risky, so scientists pretty much abandoned that technique.

Now, though, researchers at Rutgers University are testing the procedure again. They’ve found that the initial data was wrong. Very, very few chloroplasts are found in pollen cells. The initial hypothesis, that the chloroplast method could help genetically modify plants we eat and leave wild plants alone, was correct.

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