Friday, August 2, 2013

Focus on: Saving the orange through DNA modification?

In the NY Times article: A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA Amy Harmon reports on the huge toll that Citrus Greening has taken on orange crops around the world. This disease is caused by the bacterium C. liberibacter which are transferred from plant to plant by insects called psyllids as they feed on the sap in orange tree leaves. Thus far all efforts, which include increased use of pesticides and burning of infected plants, have failed to have any effect.

The idea of altering the DNA of a plant or animal, particularly when it will be consumed, is unthinkable to some; especially if it is done in a lab. When a plant or animal has had its DNA scientifically manipulated it is commonly referred to as a genetically modified organism (GMO) which have a highly negative connotation. Activists propose that GMO's should be labeled as such but companies are reluctant to do so because of the negative perception of GMO's.

 Adult Asian citrus psyllid, Diaphorina citri,
 (2-3 millimeters long) on a young citrus leaf

by David Hall
Supporters of the use of GMO's point to the fact that cross-breeding of similar plants and animals and selection of individuals with desirable traits is how we have the relative diversity of agricultural products that exist today. Recognizable products like corn and orange-colored carrots are the result of this selection. The orange itself is the product of cross-breeding. They also believe that much of the fear of GMO's is based on the general public not understanding DNA. As an example of this lack of understanding; the NY Times article cites a 2004 survey that indicated that more than 50% of those surveyed believed that if the DNA for a gene from a fish is used in a tomato it will cause the tomato to 'taste fishy'.

In the end, the orange is running out of time. The traditional selection process will likely be too slow to respond and without assistance the orange will disappear. But if making a GMO orange is the only answer, will the public want it?