New Report Profiles Breadth of Current Genetic Engineering R&D

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Bullet proof vests made from goats' milk, plants that can clean up toxins from soil and foods that can target specific vitamin and nutritional deficiencies could be a few of the next wave of products in the agricultural biotechnology pipeline, according to a new report, Harvest on the Horizon: Future Uses of Agricultural Biotechnology, released today from the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

The report is the first independent effort to catalog selected current research and development efforts in agricultural biotechnology. "This report shows that biotechnology is a powerful technology with the potential to create remarkable new products," said Mike Rodemeyer, executive director of the Initiative. "However, many of these products are likely to generate significant public debate over their relative risks and benefits. In addition, the broad scope of the research profiled in this report raises important questions, including whether the regulatory system will be ready for the next generation of biotechnology products."

"By describing what's in the biotechnology R&D pipeline, Harvest on the Horizon is intended to stimulate debate and help the public and policymakers better understand both the potential and the risks of the next generation of biotechnology products," said Rodemeyer. Other activities of the Initiative will focus on the controversies surrounding the technology, which are not addressed in this report.

Highlights of biotech research underway include:

  • Nutrition: Research is being undertaken to add vitamin E, an anti-oxidant with a possible preventive relationship to cancer, to vegetable oils; to reduce the undesirable saturated fats of cooking oils; to increase protein quantity and quality in vegetable staples; and to reduce the allergenic properties of milk, wheat, and other products to make them available to those who are ordinarily sensitive to them. There is also research on ways to add nutrients such as vitamin A and iron to rice, a staple part of the diet in many developing countries.
  • Food vaccines: Foods such as bananas are being genetically modified to produce vaccines for illnesses ranging from Hepatitis B to traveler's diarrhea to tooth decay. The advantage to using foods to deliver vaccines is that it permits the vaccine to be consumed directly by humans or animals as food or feed, and eliminates the need for purification of the vaccine strain, refrigeration and the hazards associated with injections.
  • Environmental clean-up: Researchers are creating TNT-sensitive bacteria that could be useful in landmine detection as well as engineering zebra fish that can detect pollutants such as dioxin or PCBs. Scientists are also working with a number of plants to enhance their natural ability to absorb and store toxic and hazardous substances that could assist in the cleanup of contaminated soils and chemical leaks.
  • Medical treatments: Scientists are investigating ways to bioengineer animals to produce human medical treatments, such as genetically modified sheep that produce fibrinogen, a major component in blood clotting that is used in wound treatment. Researchers are also genetically modifying animals to be able to use their organs for transplantation into humans; for example, one day, scientists may be able to transform pigs so that humans won't reject their organs, a current problem with animal-to-human transplants.
  • Endangered trees: Genetic engineering is being used to help recover trees threatened by disease, such as the American chestnut, a hardwood that was destroyed by a blight that killed 3.5 billion trees in the first half of the 20th century.
  • Disease containment: Research is being conducted to reduce the ability of mosquitoes to spread diseases such as malaria. For example, engineering mosquitoes to be resistant to the malaria parasites they host could reduce their ability to transmit the disease--which strikes some 300 to 500 million persons in the developing world annually.
  • Decorative plants and grasses: Scientists are working to genetically engineer grass that needs little watering. Research is also being conducted on ways to engineer flowers and potted plants with different shades of color and intensity than would normally be found in nature, as well as ways to change their size and shape (e.g. dwarf plants). Biotechnology techniques are already being used to extend the shelf life of cut flowers.

The full report,  Harvest on the Horizon: Future Uses of Agricultural Biotechnology, is available on this site.

The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research project whose goal is to inform the public and policymakers on issues about genetically modified food and agricultural biotechnology, including its importance, as well as concerns about it and its regulation. It is funded by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts to the University of Richmond.