Genetic Modification Eyed To Make Inedible Plants Edible

Genetic modification has come a long way and it may still have a long way to go. Despite the many advances it has been able to achieve in the field of science, it is still being considered as a common cause of debate in the public arena. The main problem behind this may be in part due to its introduction into the world and the consumer market with many people not fully understanding it as well as its effects to human life in general. But still, this hasn’t stopped many scientists from continuing to advance the science behind genetic engineering even further.

Genetic modification is currently being used to develop GM plants that are said to have better features, usually with commercial use in mind. One researcher is trying to explore the area where genetic engineering may be able to develop once inedible plants to become fit for human consumption. If successful, it might be a huge achievement for genetic engineering in helping solve world hunger.

Biology Professor Atle Bones from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and his research team have discovered that the canola plant can be genetically programmed into reducing the toxic substance that it produces in its seeds in order to make it more palatable. It was something that hasn’t been done before by other researchers. Prof. Bones thinks that it might help usher in the start of a food revolution.

There are around 250,000 plant species known, but only around 5,000 to 10,000 of them are considered edible. The rest are considered as either poisonous or just inedible for human consumption. “In fact, there are no more than about 100 known species that can be used as important food crops,” Prof. Bones adds. But with the discovery Prof. Bones and his research team made, that might possibly change.

Canola is one of the most important commercially grown crops in the world. It is primarily cultivated for its vegetable oil. During the process of removing the canola oil from its seeds, a protein-rich flour is produced as a byproduct which can be used as food for animals as well as humans.

But canola seeds are also known to contain special cells that can produce toxic substances, a defense mechanism that the plant uses to protect itself from predators. When the seeds are pressed the wrong way, these cells releases toxic compounds that causes the vegetable oil to get a n undesirable strong mustard-like flavor. The resulting flour can also cause stomach problems to animals when ingested.

What the team of researchers was able to discover may help reduce this effect. They were able to genetically reprogram the canola cells so that those special defensive cells disappear eventually on their own as the plant matures. This allows the plant to protect and defend itself while still young and then have the special cells disappear in time for processing the seeds for food. In effect, it will also enable the increase of canola oil production since the risk of contaminating the oil with unwanted flavor and odor when wrongly processed is already gone.

Prof. Bones sees the benefits that the new technology they discovered may offer to the world. With further studies, they may be able to develop other plants using this method and make them fit for human consumption.  One of the new plant prospects that Prof. Bones and his team are eyeing is cannabis. It is a plant known to be hardy, grows fast and can thrive in any type of climate. “It would be interesting to use our new technology to produce cannabis that does not contain the psychoactive substance THC,” Bones says. The need for additional testing may be required in order to further understand and use the newly discovered method for commercial purposes.

Source: The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) (2012, January 27). Making poisonous plants and seeds safe and palatable: Canola now, cannabis next?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 9, 2012, from

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