Is the Humble Sweet Potato a Natural GMO?

When we talk about genetically modified organisms, we might think that this is an entirely artificial process. However, a group of scientists say they’ve found evidence that the humble sweet potato hides a secret: it may have essentially genetically modified itself.

The study, which was conducted by researchers from Ghent University in Belgium, tells that when researchers analyzed sweet potatoes as part of an effort to investigate viral diseases, they found something rather unexpected: genes (labeled T-DNA) of a particular species of bacteria known as Agrobacterium were present in the sweet potato. Obviously, the researchers first thought to check that their specimens hadn’t somehow been contaminated, but after examining the specimens more closely they were able to find multiple instances of the bacteria’s genes inserted into the sweet potato samples’ own DNA. 

Further examination of 291 sweet potato samples showed the presence of Agrobacterium genes. Researchers have since examined wild sweet potatoes, as opposed to lab cultivated specimens, and found that some closely related species also contain the Agrobacterium genes. So what is going on?

Usually, when bacteria infect a plant, that infection does not pass to the next generation when the plant reproduces. However, Agrobacterium has shown a talent for doing what’s known as “horizontal gene transfer” whereby it can exchange genes with other organisms without sexual reproduction. In this case, this enabled the bacteria to have a longer term impact on the sweet potato. In fact, scientists believe that the gene swapping process may have happened at least twice in the history of the sweet potato’s development. What’s more, because those bacterial genes survive, it seems the sweet potato found those genes to be favorable and retained them in successive generations, thereby essentially modifying itself.

“The natural presence of Agrobacterium T-DNA in sweet potato and its stable inheritance during evolution is a beautiful example of the possibility of DNA exchange across species barriers,” Dr. Lieve Gheysen, a researcher in this study, is quoted as saying. “It demonstrates that genetic modification also happens in nature.”

This isn’t entirely unprecedented. For instance, we know that horizontal gene transfer occurs among more simple organisms, but researchers haven’t observed this as much among the more complex levels of life. However, new techniques are reportedly showing a much greater exchange rate than scientists had previously believed was happening, and so this latest study represents a thrilling illustration of that fact.

There’s another reason to be interested in this story, too. Researchers appear hopeful that this example of a natural transgenic organism might go some way to assuage fears surrounding GMOs.

 ”Our finding, that sweet potato is naturally transgenic while being a widely and traditionally consumed food crop, could affect the current consumer distrust of the safety of transgenic food crops,” the researchers write. The researchers also specifically note that they want to use this to illustrate how cultivating GMO crops in a lab environment offers advantages because it allows them to go through careful and methodical checks, safeguards that obviously aren’t present in nature.

While this may not answer some objections to GMOs, such as concerns over biodiversity, it may help to ease fears that GMO crops of themselves are harmful to our health, something that hundreds of separate scientific investigations have shown isn’t true.

So what do you think about the idea of natural GMOs? And does it change the way you feel about transgenic crops?

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

90 comments

Jerome S
Jerome S1 years ago

thanks

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Jerome S
Jerome S1 years ago

thanks

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for sharing.

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for sharing.

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Kirk Anderson
Kirk Anderson3 years ago

I read this article at Ethics Asylum stating Bill Nye the science guy has changed his tune and is now in support of GMOs! All it took to change his mind was a trip to Monsanto. Come on Bill! Check it out: http://ethicsasylum.com/2015/07/14/heres-the-critical-reason-bill-nye-the-science-guy-changed-his-mind-on-gmos/

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Laurie j.
Laurie jope3 years ago

Thanks

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Jonathan Harper
Jonathan Harper3 years ago

Noted

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Magdalena J.
Past Member 3 years ago

Thank you!

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