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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Using Radiation to Force Mutations in Seeds

Q. Have you done any experiments with gamma rays and X-rays applied to seeds attempting to mutate them into something different? Totally curious if this is at all done or just a neat idea.

A. Giving seeds some sort of radiation to mutate them into something better is a little bit like taking a Hyundai and smashing it into a brick wall hoping to get a Mercedes. This kind of research was tried by scientists not that long ago without much success. The mutations were all over the place. Manipulation of plants is focused on its DNA or "genes".

When radiation is given to seeds, we do not know which part of the DNA, if any, is changed until they are grown. Just like the Hyundai example, the results can be highly variable. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, is precise. If genetic engineering is successful, scientists must precisely understand the genetic information inside the plant.

Specifically, they must know exactly which gene controls which plant function. Genetic engineering changes a specific gene which in turn causes a plant to change, hopefully, in a predicted way. This new or “changed” gene provides the plant with different guidance than before.

When new genes are spliced into existing DNA, the plant responds differently according to which gene was changed. The result is a mutation but scientists have a much more accurate guess as to how this new plant will act. Genetic engineering causes the “Hyundai” to become something different; maybe a pickup truck.

This newer form of the same plant, scientists hope, will be an improved version of the old one. People who are skeptical of this type of science, cautious or opposed to genetic engineering, are concerned this "new" plant may be something dangerous to human health, dangerous to other plants, to our environment, or cause a result scientists have not anticipated.

An alternative point of view from the New York Times

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