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Tilling: GMNO

Higher yields and extended shelf life without genetic engineering

Through the process of mutagenesis more than 2,000 plant species have been created over the past 50 years, according to Dr. Beckles. A well-known example of its success is the Ruby Red grapefruit. This particular variety came from a natural mutation within a grapefruit tree, which was used as the basis for further TILLING to create an even deeper red coloring.

Comparing TILLING and Genetic Modification
By process, TILLING is much faster than traditional crossbreeding. Scientists have been crossbreeding plants for years, from Gregor Mendel’s plant hybrids (considered the beginning of modern genetics) to mutation breeding.

In classical crossbreeding, two plants such as a mildew-resistant pea and a high yielding pea may be crossbred to produce a high yielding, mildew-resistant variety.

Crossbreeding typically aims to improve a plant’s survivability so it may continue to maturity and provide maximum yield. Despite its many advantages, however, the crossbreeding process is slow and often takes many years to produce a plant with the desired characteristics.

Genetic modification (GM), the process of inserting or removing genes from an organism’s genome—began in the 1980s and expanded rapidly in the 1990s. Genetically modified crops have changed the world by providing plants able to withstand the devastating effects of drought or pest infestation. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, there were 175.2 million hectares of GM crops growing in the world in 2013.

The highest acreage of biotech crops is in the United States, made up of 70.1 million total hectares of maize, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya, and squash. As a relatively new scientific process, it has become increasingly controversial as consumers worry about the repercussions of genetic modification—such as long-term effects on health and the environment.

Although TILLING involves influencing plant DNA, the process is distinctly different from genetically modified crop development. TILLING does not involve genetic engineering but rather genetic mutation. Genetically modified crops have extra, fewer, or modified genes, while the TILLING process does not add or remove genes and only works with genes already existing within an organism.

“The advantage with TILLING,” Dr. Beckles emphasizes, is “you haven’t added any DNA to the plant. All you’ve done is exposed it to agents that would cause mistakes in the gene pool.” Given the rising objections to GM plants, TILLING could be the wave of the future.