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November 26, 2002
Unequivocal Good News
You may have noticed the recent report about the creation of an engineered stress-resistant rice. This looks like a real triumph of plant biotechnology, and it's the best news I've seen in some time.
The idea behind this work has been floating around for some time (and the Cornell team that succeeded has been at it since at least 1996 themselves.) There's a sugar called trehalose (chemically, two glucose molecules attached roughly head-to-head) that's been known for many years as a biological preservative. Everything that can survive severe drying, from yeast and bacteria on up, seems to produce this stuff under stress. The best guess about its function is that it replaces the water that would normally surround key proteins and cell membranes, and stabilizes them until (and during) rehydration. Trehalose tends to form a noncrystalline glassy solid state, which probably is what happens inside the cells. (By the way, it's completely nontoxic, and found in many foodstuffs already.)
Plants have been engineered to produce it before, but there have been problems. If the sugar is produced all through the plant, there's often some stunted growth or other odd effects - these plants showed drought tolerance, but that correlated pretty well with how weird they looked. One key was to get the gene expressed only in chloroplasts, the cholorphyll-containing organelles that do the metabolic heavy lifting (in the same way that mitochondria do it outside the plant world.) That has the added advantage of making the gene(s) much harder to transfer to other plants in the wild.
The Cornell team managed to get a lot of control over how the sugar is expressed - with different genetic promoters, they can cause it to show up in different parts of the rice plant, or under different conditions (only under stress, for example.) That and an improvement in the gene that was used seem to have done the trick.
So what sort of rice plant is this? One that actually seems to do a better job of photosynthesis, for reasons that aren't really clear yet. One that can take salt-water conditions, stand 10-degree lower temperatures, and stand up to ten-day droughts. Any of these will kill a normal rice plant, but these survive. This is going to open up huge marginal areas to cultivation.
Do you suppose the European Union will ban these plants? Can you just see activists pulling them out of the ground? Do you think it's any coincidence at all that this result was realized in a country that sets researchers free? The Cornell group has already announced that they're going to release this technique to the public domain, as a benefit to mankind. The same technique looks to be applicable to corn, soybeans, wheat - you name it. If the promise of this work is realized, a huge step has been taken to alleviate human suffering. I'm as happy as can I can be about this, and I'd like to salute the people who made it happen. And to take a little time to reflect about what tremendous things can be accomplished, even here at the beginning of our knowledge. . .
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