Sweet Potato is a Naturally Occurring Transgenic Plant

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(Last Updated On: April 2, 2020)
sweet potato as a naturally occurring transgenic plant
Naturally occurring transgenic plant. Common Wikimedia

Do you know, in nature, there is already a genetic engineering mechanism that exists, before the invention of genetic engineering tools? Do you know there is a naturally occurring transgenic crop? An international team of the biologist has made a study on sweet potato, revealing the sweet potato as a natural transgenic plant.


Transgenic Plant

The transgenic plant is the one created using genetic engineering technology. During the genetic engineering process, a single or a group of a gene is inserted into a plant genome to improve or create a new trait of that plant. Now a day, transgenic plant or any other transgenic organism is created, in the same way, using genetic engineering technology.

Though there is no evidence that can prove genetically modified crops have any adverse effect, there are many proofs that GMOs are safe. The use of GMOs is controversial in a number of countries and one of the vague reasons behind this controversy is about bringing genes from distantly related organisms into the plant.

A recent study carried out by an international team of biologists on sweet potato reveals that sweet potato is a natural transgenic plant. The current strain of sweet potato that we currently cultivate contains a set of genes within its genome that were originally inserted into the genome by the bacteria the same bacteria that are used to create GMOs.

The bacteria mentioned above are a species of Agrobacterium genus, which is a group of a plant pathogen that causes gall in the plant (tumor-like structure). During infection, the given bacteria insert a segment of DNA (this is called T-DNA) into the genome of the host cell. Thus, incorporated DNA contains a number of genes which upon expression interferes with a number of plant hormones responsible for cell proliferation (tumor-like growth).

This is the reason why plant geneticists use Agrobacterium for the genetically modified crop (transgenic plants) production. The plant geneticists replace some of the bacterial DNA with a gene or a collection of genes of their choice and get it inserted into the plant with a bit of work. This is one of the easiest ways of making transgenic plants. However, the making of the transgenic plant using Agrobacterium is not so easy because there is a barrier. Bacterial DNA doesn’t end up in the plant tissue but can lead to uncontrolled growth, and interfering problems.

The current sweet potato, a food crop, was first domesticated over 8,000 years ago in South America from where its use spread out globally. Researchers carried out the study of RNA molecules produced the sweet potato and they found a collection of bacterial genes. They synthesized cDNA from the RNA (representing bacterial genes) and what they found is the Agrobacterium T-DNA with some additional genes from the bacteria. They also found a second cluster of genes that reveals there is a natural transgenic process that happened at least twice in this lineage.

During this study, what the researchers found is that; one of these clusters of genes was found in a number of cultivated sweet potato strains as well as some wild relatives. However, the second cluster of genes was absent in the wild relatives but present in every cultivated strain of the sweet potato.

Thus, they come to the conclusion that every sweet potato contains foreign genes obtained through a process that is similar to the process of creating GMO foods. The authors suggested that sweet potato is a naturally occurring transgenic being a widely consumed traditional food crop that could affect the current consumers thinking about the safety of the transgenic food crops.

Reference: The genome of cultivated sweet potato contains Agrobacterium T-DNAs with expressed genes: An example of a naturally transgenic food crop

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