Valuable Mutants

hulkHe rolled the dice again. This time, he was mimicking what he and his colleagues have been doing quietly around the globe for more than a half-century — using radiation to scramble the genetic material in crops, a process that has produced valuable mutants like red grapefruit, disease-resistant cocoa and premium barley for Scotch whiskey.

~ William Broad

I have occasionally had the opportunity to pick wild blueberries, apples or other fruit. I’ve hunted birds, rabbit and deer. I have spent days picking wild grains. I’ve fished in streams, lakes and several oceans. I love eating food that I have collected personally, but I know I would eat a lot less, and less well, if I had to survive on only what I reaped.

Nowadays, I hunt for bargains at the grocery store, farm stands or farmer’s markets. I’m happy to let others grow or collect the food that I eat, and on a consistent basis, farmed food is much better than most wild food. We have disrupted the natural cycles for most of our food supplies. In reality, relying strictly on nature alone just won’t cut it for our burgeoning mass of humanity.

Humans have been modifying the genetics of foods since early man first selectively picked and planted grains. Over time, we have used any method that we feel will improve our food’s yield, nutrition, taste, aesthetic appeal and disease resistance. We are selective in what we grow, what we raise and how we manage our food supplies. Whether it’s meat, fish or vegetation, we domesticate and farm for our food supplies.

Evolution has given us a variety of natural characteristics and species, and continues to create change. Humans have found ways to take advantage of the natural evolution of plants and animals and direct those changes in ways that we consider beneficial. Author Richard Conniff reports that “… emerging technologies — including plant vaccines, gene editing (as distinct from genetic engineering), and manipulation of plant-microbe partnerships — hold out the tantalizing promise that it may yet be possible to farm more sustainably and boost yields at the same time.”

It is worth noting that the use of radiation in genetic mutation has been effective for decades. William Broad and Jo Robinson have written about radiation-induced mutations:

  • “In the late 1950’s a geneticist named John Laughnan determined that some of these old irradiated kernels actually produced a more intense sweetness than any of the “natural” corn. Super-sweet caught on and today nearly all sweet corn is from the super-sweet, irradiated, genetically-modified variety.”
  • “.. in 1959, the Texas A&M University Kingsville Citrus Center sent thousands of Hudson Pink seeds to the Brookhaven National Laboratory to be exposed to radiation: mutation on demand. One of those irradiated seeds grew into a tree that produced the Star Ruby variety. This fruit had fewer seeds and a deeper red color than the Hudson Pink. Buds from the Star Ruby were irradiated in 1963 to produce Rio Red, which is one of the darkest red grapefruits of all. These accidental and man-made mutants now dominate the U.S. Market.”
  • “In the early 1970s, Researcher Dr. J. Neil Rutger, then in Davis, Calif., fired gamma rays at rice. He and his colleagues found a semi-dwarf mutant that gave much higher yields, partly because it produced more grain. Its short size also meant it fell over less often, reducing spoilage. Known as Calrose 76, it was released publicly in 1976 … Today, Dr. Rutger said, about half the rice grown in California derives from this dwarf … The process leaves no residual radiation or other obvious marks of human intervention. It simply creates offspring that exhibit new characteristics.”
  • “The payoff was even bigger in Europe, where scientists fired gamma rays at barley to produce Golden Promise, a mutant variety with high yields and improved malting. After its debut in 1967, brewers in Ireland and Britain made it into premium beer and whiskey. It still finds wide use.”

Worldwide, scientists using radiation have successfully improved crops, including rice, grapefruit, beans, sweet corn, barley, black currants, oats, wheat, peanuts, and cocoa. Only recently, however, has the use of genetic engineering to actually splice DNA from one organism into another been used to create genetically modified organisms (GMO).

According to William Broad, “Dr. Lagoda said that radiation breeding, though an old technology, was undergoing rapid growth. New methods that speed up the identification of mutants are making radiation breeding even more popular … Radiation breeding is widely used in the developing world … Beneficiaries have included Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand and Vietnam.”

We need to watch and see how well these emerging, and tried and true, technologies help to improve our food supply. While there’s lots of room for improvement and the prospect is tantalizing, there’s also a lot that can go wrong. As an old professor of mine used to say, “Here, we’re on the frontier of knowledge.”

Additional Information:

William J. Broad, “Useful Mutants, Bred with Radiation” New York Times, Science Section, August 28, 2007

Richard Conniff, Can ‘Vaccines’ for Crops Help Cut Pesticide Use and Boost Yields? April19, 2018, YaleEnvironment360

Jo Robinson, Eating on the Wild Side, The Missing Link to Optimum Health, 2013

Steve Tarlton, Sweet, Sweet Corn, August 7, 2015, Writes of Nature

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