10 successful examples of genetic modification

The media keeps bombarding us with alarming news items about genetically modified food, and we rarely hear anything positive about this exciting topic. Below you will find a brief description of ten genetic modifications, most of which you have probably never heard of. There are many others, of course, but I think these will suffice for now.

  1. Mouse-ear cress
  2. Western corn rootworm, European corn borer
  3. Bananas
  4. Abiotic stress
  5. Onions that do not make you cry
  6. Golden rice
  7. Purple tomatoes
  8. Carrots that help prevent osteoporosis
  9. Soybean oil for frying
  10. Arctic apple
  1. Mouse-ear cress
    Mouse-ear cress

    Mouse-ear cress

This is a small invasive species, and we know a great deal about its genes. This little plant helps us understand the hereditary nature of numerous plant characteristics relating to: drought, low nitrogen requirements, low temperatures and freezing, high temperatures, light (e.g. shade tolerance), tolerance to UV radiation, photosynthetic activity, low pH and aluminium in the soil, high pH, growth speed, flowering period, greenness during maturation time, plant architecture, fertility, organ size, ramification form, stem width, ozone, high carbon dioxide, high nitrogen, carbon/nitrogen, seed morphology, biotic resistance, and the composition of seed oil, seed proteins, lignin and sterols. After the genes for these characteristics are found in the mouse-ear cress, they can be used to modify cultivated species.

  1. Western corn rootworm, European corn borer (photo: Franci Aco Celar)
    Western corn rootworm, European corn borer (photo: Franci Aco Celar)

    Western corn rootworm, European corn borer

GM species that dominate fields are mostly used to facilitate production. This includes species resistant to harmful insects, such as the European corn borer and the Western corn rootworm. The latter was imported from America, where damage is caused by two other species of rootworms that drill into stems and cause the crops to bend. Since there are no resistant species in Slovenia, this problem is being tackled with crop rotation. The same applies to cotton, where new species allow up to 80% less spraying.

Non-Bt cotton vs. Bt cotton (photo via agbioforum.org)
Non-Bt cotton vs. Bt cotton (photo via agbioforum.org)
  1. Bananas

In many countries around the world bananas are the main source of calories. According to reports from Uganda, their production is compromised by the emergence of new diseases. Ugandan scientists have successfully used a genetic modification, inserting a pepper gene into bananas, which prevents the fruit from getting the disease.

  1. Abiotic stress

So far, fields have been dominated by GM species resistant to pests and specific herbicides, and it seems that they will soon be joined by species resistant to abiotic stress. Frost-resistant eucalyptus trees are already being produced and used in the paper industry. As for the leading crops, species that successfully grow with smaller doses of nitrogen and phosphorus are already being tested. In addition, the first drought-resistant species are making their way to the market, as well as rice that is better adapted to flooded fields. These characteristics will enable more environmentally friendly production and easier adaptation to extreme weather conditions.

A rice gene has been added to the orchids in the upper row which enables them to survive low temperatures.
A rice gene has been added to the orchids in the upper row which enables them to survive low temperatures.
  1. Onions that do not make you cry

In 2008, a New Zealand research team lead by Colin Eady produced an onion that does not make you cry while cutting it. Interestingly, the insertion of a single gene which downregulates the activity of the onion enzyme that makes your eyes water has managed to achieve two things: firstly, onions no longer make your eyes water, and secondly, they now have even more health beneficial sulphur-containing substances than regular onions.

(Photo: Crystal Luxmore via Flickr)
(Photo: Crystal Luxmore via Flickr)
  1. The cover of Time magazine, 31st July 2000 (Photo via time.com)
    The cover of Time magazine, 31st July 2000 (Photo via time.com)

    Golden rice

On 31st July 2000, Ingo Potrykus appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The Swiss scientist and his German colleague Peter Beyerhad had produced a breed of rice which, unlike any other, also contains provitamin A. The lack of this vitamin is especially harmful to the poorest and is estimated to cause blindness among 250,000-500,000 children every year. Another two million people a year die from other deficiency-related causes. So far, the measures taken to introduce vitamin supplements have not yet reached those poor countries. Because of its colour, the product was first given the name golden rice, which remains the same to this day. After concluding numerous tests, researchers from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines have proven that even small amounts of the rice are sufficient, and that it is absolutely safe. Unfortunately, partly due to the vandalism of “green” activists, the rice has yet to reach its target group. We should also mention the existence of genetically modified rice, produced in 2011, which contains four times as much iron as the regular one, and could therefore save even more lives.

Golden rice (photo: International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) via Wikimedia)
Golden rice (photo: International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) via Wikimedia)
  1. Israeli “Black Galaxy” tomatoes (photo via www.seedstec.com)
    Israeli “Black Galaxy” tomatoes (photo via www.seedstec.com)

    Purple tomatoes

In 2008, a small English research group published a study describing how they had transferred a gene from a decorative plant into a tomato, which enabled the production of anthocyanin, making the tomato dark blue. They later tested it on mice, and discovered that it prevents them from getting cancer. These tomatoes cannot be bought due to their GMO status but you can buy similar dark blue ones, which are the result of a complex interspecific hybridisation performed by Italian scientists. Producing such tomatoes seems to have sparked competition between cultivators. In 2012 for instance, the Israelis announced that they have beaten the Italians by introducing a new species to the market called Black Galaxy.

  1. Carrots that help prevent osteoporosis

In 2004, an American research team transferred a CAX1 gene from the mouse‑ear cress into carrots so that they contained larger amounts of organically bound calcium. In 2008, they performed a study where such carrots were tested on mice and 30 volunteers, and the results showed that humans absorbed 42% more calcium from the modified carrots than from regular ones. The aim of this test was to help prevent osteoporosis, while the emphasis was on its bioavailability in target tissues.

  1. Soybean oil for frying

Two American companies have significantly improved soybean edible oil through genetic modification. The Plenish oil marketed by DuPont used gene silencing to produce oil that contains low levels of polyunsaturated fats and high levels of monounsaturated fats, while the saturated fatty acids have decreased by 20%. This kind of oil has high stability during baking, meaning it does not need to go through the chemical process of hydrogenation, which produces unwanted trans fats. There is a similar vascular-system-friendly oil marketed by Monsanto with two inserted genes enabling the production of omega-3 fatty acids. Rapeseed is also close to being released into production by the company BASF, containing five genes isolated from seaweed. These are the first products since the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994 to be made directly available to the consumer.

  1. Arctic apple

An apple turns brown if it is cut in half, which is why its slices are often soaked in antioxidants to prevent this. In 2012, Canadian scientists started releasing two popular apple cultivars, Golden Delicious and Granny Smith, and are planning to introduce Gala and Fuji cultivars, all under the brand name Arctic Apple. The non-browning characteristic could already be found in some apple cultivars, like the newest Slovene cultivar called Majda, but none of them has gained strong commercial recognition. The aim of this research is to prevent the most popular cultivars from turning brown. The same principle applies to these apples as to the previously mentioned onions: it is not about adding genes but about downregulating the activity of the existing ones.

(Photo via www.ediblegardenproject.com)
(Photo via www.ediblegardenproject.com)


Author: Borut Bohanec, lectures on plant breeding and plant biotechnology, as well as being Head of Chair and Deputy Dean at the Department of Agronomy at the Biotechnical Faculty, University of Ljubljana. He is a lightning conductor for politicians, self-proclaimed environmentalists and ringleaders of organic agriculture. Follow him on twitter @BorutBohanec.


Translated by: Tanja Breznik.


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