Applications, Benefits, and Risks
As a way to create plants with desirable characteristics—without the long timeframe of classical crossbreeding or the negative shadow of genetic engineering—TILLING is gaining favor both within and outside the scientific community.
A number of universities around the world are conducting TILLING experiments, from the University of California, Davis (projects with Arabidopsis thaliana [related to the Brassicaceae family of plants like mustard and cabbage], rice, tomatoes, and wheat) to India’s University of Hyderabad (tomatoes), as well as the National Institute for Agricultural Research in Paris, France (tomatoes and peas), West Lafayette, Indiana’s Purdue University (corn), and Southern Illinois University in Carbondale (soybeans).
In addition to university trials, the German Federal Ministry of Research has also been involved in multiple projects, using TILLING to improve qualities in grain, potatoes, and sugar beets. Stateside, Arcadia Biosciences, Inc. continues to work on several TILLING applications to enhance taste and extend shelf life. Early experiments with tomatoes were promising, and Arcadia is reportedly working on other commodities as well, including projects with lettuce, melons, and strawberries.
The use of TILLING could have a profound impact on the produce industry, such as extending shelf life for certain fruits by as much as an additional two weeks. Though this has already been achieved with some genetic engineering projects,
TILLING provides a path to improve fruits and vegetables without the public outcry and controversy.
Current crops typically used in TILLING include wheat, rice, soybeans, and maize, but there is room for fresh produce in the mix from tomatoes to melons or even peas. Dr. Beckles believes higher-volume crops (like melons) are the best candidates for TILLING because the process is rather expensive.
Despite its promise, there are risks and detractions to TILLING. Valuable characteristics cannot be added where they do not exist—which is possible with GMO varieties, such as the much-talked about nonbrowning Arctic apple—but time can be considerable due to the random nature of some mutations.
According to a March 2010 article in the European newsletter GMO Compass, “the random nature of the first-step mutations means that many plant genes may not function as they should.” Such occurrences slow the process and can hamper progress, creating plants with more undesirable than favorable characteristics. Because of this lack of precision, researchers can lose valuable time and money.