Scientist hail genome editing as the future of organic farming

In a move that will no doubt annoy organic farming hardliners, a group of scientists, ethical experts and legal experts from Denmark have proposed that genome editing be used to develop more efficient and affordable organic produce.

In a review published today in the journal Trends in Plant Science, the group made the case for genome editing to “rewild” food crops that have become ungrowable without pesticides, making them produce higher yields and remain resilient to disease and poor weather, while grown under organic conditions.

As contradictory a concept as it might sound, the group argue that the practice would be acceptable under the EU’s legal definition of organic produce, as it would simply speed up a process that could be achieved through selective long-term breeding.

“In current legislations, a plant is considered natural if it’s mutated by chemicals and radiation – that happens in nature,” explained senior author Michael Palmgren, a plant and environmental scientist at the University of Copenhagen.

“If you can make a precise mutation that has the same effect and you don’t introduce new material, then this type of plant should also be an exception.”

tomatoes

Rewilding is a term that is very much on the rise, and for good reason. After decades of breeding to increase yields, many of the fruits and vegetables found in stores and supermarkets are unable to grow without pesticides, as they would be too vulnerable to pests and poor weather.

“The corn we eat does not live in nature anymore,” said Palmgren. “It’s like how we turned a wolf into a poodle.

“During breeding you select for specific characteristics, but then you risk losing others because you’re not selecting for them. If you wanted to strengthen a dog, you would breed it with a wolf.”

At present, however, no rewilded crops have actually been created by adding specific traits, although there is plenty of evidence to show that it would be possible, but some have been created by removing one.

A notable example is a 2014 study that saw bread wheat become more resistant to mildew by removing DNA from three distinct areas, resulting in the crop’s offspring carrying on this resistance.

The same effect could have been achieved by a breeding programme, so it blurs the lines between what we think of as genetic engineering and more traditional crop management.

Image courtesy of Andersen et al. / Trends in Plant Science 2015.

Image courtesy of Andersen et al. / Trends in Plant Science 2015.

While the group feel genome editing could have great benefits for organic foods, and believe crops developed using the technology would not be classed as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), they are conscious of the importance of making consumers feel informed about the technology.

In particular, they need to avoid what happened when a new crop of GMOs appeared in the 1990s, where a moral panic about ‘Frankenstein foods’ quickly spread in the media.

“Originally, when the whole idea of transgenic plants came up – that you can take a gene from a bacteria or a fish and put it in a corn – we as plant scientists were excited about the technology and didn’t understand the objections,” said Palmgren.

“This is a new program, and I’ve learned to have discussions and debates with people in other fields from the beginning so that we do not repeat past mistakes that affected public opinion.”

Human-robot symbiosis: Not all robots are coming after our jobs

Robots will take human jobs. It’s a widespread belief that artificial intelligence and machinery will be capable of doing many of the jobs that us humans do on a daily basis – one that’s even coming true in some circumstances. And when Bill Gates voices his concerns about robots taking human jobs it’s something that you have to take seriously.

But the situation might not be as devastating as it seems. There’s the possibility that instead of taking our jobs we could share them with robots and allow them to take responsibility for our most mind-numbing tasks.

That’s exactly what this half-sized robot nurse, from Japan, is capable of.

Terapio, which can help medical staff in delivering resources and recording patient information, was designed with a “human-robot symbiosis” in mind, said Ryosuke Tasaki from Toyohashi University of Technology.

In practice the ideal envisioned by the researchers is for the robot to take away the menial tasks, that can be completed by artificial intelligence, and allow a human being to focus on things that only humans are capable of.

“As we were developing Terapio, we could clearly imagine the human-robot symbiosis. By constantly promoting the pursuit of system integration technology, life with robots will be a reality in the near future,” Tasaki said.

“An ongoing daily effort to incorporate high-tech robotics into our activities will be the best way to realize life in our future society.”

carerobot

Inline images courtesy of Toyohashi University of Technology

The robot that Tasaki and other researchers have created is an autonomous mobile robot that can follow a person around a building.

It is able to recognise a specific individual and then follow them between locations – in this example it can follow the doctor around hospital corridors.

The robot can record patients’ personal and vital signs and is also able to display the patient’s heath records.

There is also a touch panel on the top of the robot that is used for operating and inputting data, as well as receiving information about the doctor’s round or schedule.

carerobot2

Terapio is the latest robot that is offering the potential to be able to assist in medical situations, rather than fully replacing human workers. The home and healthcare sectors are seeing an increasing drive to create robots that are able to assist those working in the sectors but also provide a benefit to the patients.

This drive is particularly evident in Japan where ¥2.39bn ($3.9bn) of government funding given to researchers to help with the creation of homecare robots.

Earlier this year Robear, an experimental nursing robot also from Japan, was introduced as an those with mobility problems get in and out of bed.

The bear-shaped research project, developed by Riken and Sumitomo Riko Company, is able to lend a hand by lifting patients from beds into wheelchairs or help them to get to their feet.


Featured image courtesy of RIKEN