"Directed Mutagenesis" Heralds Next Wave of Genetic Engineering


BASF test plot in Saskatchewan by Cory

The German chemical giant BASF has announced the development of "a new generation of genetically altered crops, by precisely manipulating the plant's own DNA without inserting foreign genes." BASF refers to the genetic manipulation as "directed mutagenesis". Technology entrepreneur Barry Schuler can be heard promoting the technology for the wine industry in a recent TED talk that focuses on genomics.

So what's all the excitement about?

For BASF, the hope is that the technology will speed up the regulatory process to allow them to get a pesticide resistant strain of canola in production. Of course, the canola will only be resistant to their own brand of pesticide, aptly named Clearfield. The Financial Times reports:

The technology... produces new traits such as herbicide resistance, which are very similar to those achieved through conventional genetic modification of plants. But because no genes are added, it is likely to avoid the political and regulatory objections that have delayed the introduction of GM crops, particularly in Europe.

Schuler's immediate hopes for the technology are a bit more high brow. He's banking that the technology will result in a better tasting pinot noir. Schuler imagines a time when all the microbes and soil bugs that make up terroir will be replicable anywhere. And while we'd all love to be able to grow a world-class wine grape in our north facing permanently shady backyard, we remain dubious. Schuler dismisses any criticism of the technology with a quick wave of his hand, repeating the well-worn excuse that humans have been engineering plants for thousands of years. "Don't worry about it," he says.

It may indeed turn out that directed mutagenesis is a viable way to speed up traditional plant breeding, without the adverse side effects we're seeing from the first wave of gmos. But, the technology doesn't answer our biggest concern with genetic engineering which revolves around questions of ownership. For a technology like this to be truly useful to our world we'll need to see an application that improves the nutrition or yield of crops. BASF's innovation will only cause more pesticides to be applied to the environment. As it stands now, the only foreseeable benefits are to the share holders of the world's largest chemical company.

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Tags: Agriculture | Chemicals | Farming | Genetic Engineering | Germany | GMO