Could Epigenetics Help Feed the World?

A look at how this novel approach offers “budding” opportunities over GMOs to improve crop productivity

If you were a teenager in 1985, like I was, you probably remember spending an entire day in July plopped in front of the TV watching one of the greatest concerts of all time – Live Aid. The legendary concert broadcast-live around the world that featured an amazing line-up of rock stars was, and still is, the most successful charity event ever held. But, let us not forget its purpose – to raise money and awareness for the famine that devastated West Africa.

Thirty years later, despite the billions of dollars that were raised at Live Aid and other relief efforts, famine and starvation still exists in Africa, as well as in other parts of the world. Aside from geopolitical reasons — including war and economic policy — drought, disease and other climate related factors continue to be major contributors to the world’s food shortage problem.

Climate change and agriculture

According to the World Health Organization, hunger is a leading threat to the world’s public health and undernourishment is a leading cause of death in children, attributing to about half of all cases 1. While relief organizations and other humanitarian efforts have saved lives, the hunger problem unfortunately is being compounded by climate change and its critical impact on agriculture. The fact is we are already experiencing the effects of climate change right now – storms are becoming more volatile and droughts more severe. And, these changes are ultimately affecting crop production. Changes such as extreme cold, extreme heat, and excessive amounts of snow and rain are causing crop damage, plant disease, pest infestation, and shorter growing seasons around the world.

Over the past century, biotechnology has tackled the issue of climate change by contributing solutions that decrease greenhouse gases and by developing sustainable food crops that can withstand hazardous conditions. Some farmers concerned with failing crop yields have embraced certain biotechnologies, such as genetically modified crops, also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). However, controversy exists regarding their overall value and safety.

GMO concerns and research

Agricultural biotechnology companies, Monsanto and Syngenta, two of the largest producers of agrichemical products and seeds, have faced significant protest in recent years as the prominence of GMOs and consumer awareness have increased. Concerns over genetically modified crops on health and the environment as well as political controversy have led to increased regulation in regions such as the European Union 2. The companies counter that GMOs are safe and continuously conduct research and testing in support of this claim. According to Monsanto’s website, “GMO crops have been reviewed and tested more than any other crops in the history of agriculture and have been shown to be as safe as conventional crops.” Their efforts over the years have been broadly accepted by farmers since, basically, they work and are cost effective. A farmer I spoke with in Upstate New York said, “We use their seed because it saves us from needing special equipment and chemicals, which can be very expensive.”

But legitimate concern regarding GMOs remains, particularly involving the potential for allergies since GMOs may use foreign genetic material to alter an organism. In a previous article about the origins of developing allergies, we discussed some allergic complications. An unknown protein in genetically modified food might trigger an allergic response, and for some, this could be detrimental. It’s understandable why some consumers want GMO labeling and more available organic or certified non-GMO products, especially in light of the allergic epidemic.

So many food items today contain GMOs and this concerns a growing number of people. I think it’s important that agribusinesses, especially those involved in genetic engineering, use their research capabilities to address these concerns and look to newer technologies as prospective “breeding grounds” for more naturally-contrived methods to improve crop production.

Epigenetic approach to benefit agriculture

Genetic modifications happen naturally and farmers have been taking advantage of this phenomenon for centuries by cultivating plants with desirable characteristics. This does, however, take some time to perfect. So why not explore a different approach. Could crops be improved without directly editing their DNA? Plant scientists are already working on this and their findings offer tremendous promise for better performing crops without gene mutation. Their research, of course, is in epigenetics.

The science of epigenetics is of keen interest to all who want to understand the underlying biology of epigenetic gene regulation and its potential application for crop improvement.

The study of epigenetics deals with heritable changes in trait variations that are not caused by alterations in DNA sequence. DNA methylation, histone modification and RNA interference (RNAi) are three commonly used mechanisms for epigenetic gene regulation in plants. Once these epigenetic changes are established, it’s possible for them to be inherited from one generation to the next. Inheritance occurs through epigenetic alleles (or alleles having the same DNA sequence but different DNA methylation patterns), which in turn leads to higher polymorphism and eventually to newer phenotypes. This new source of variation is vital to the crop improvement process 3. Plant breeders already know that heritable variation provides basis for selection in plant breeding. Therefore, because novel phenotypes are obtainable through epigenetic processes, there’s great potential for epigenetics to improve crop production.

“The science of epigenetics is of keen interest to all who want to understand the underlying biology of epigenetic gene regulation and its potential application for crop improvement,” says Michiel Van Lookeren Campagne, Head of Biology Research at Syngenta. “We are keenly interested in how we can leverage epigenetic processes to bring innovation to farmers, especially in the area of heterosis.” Although Campagne and his colleagues believe it may be a number of years before new products are designed, they do acknowledge that epigenetics is involved in many processes that are key to agricultural productivity.

In addition, “the USDA Agricultural Research Service supports fundamental and applied research on the applications of epigenetics for crop improvement,” according to Roy A. Scott, Ph.D., Interim Deputy Administrator for Agricultural Research Service at the USDA. “Epigenetic processes are important players in the orchestration of crop gene activity in the field, and hence influence key crop traits.” Examples of their research include: whole-genome level DNA methylation to identify complex traits in row crops and specialty crops; understanding the epigenetic processes involved plant flowering time and resistance to pathogens; and utilizing gene silencing techniques to confer virus resistance in crops such as papayas and plums. It is without a doubt that the potential of epigenetics is being recognized by researchers, agricultural companies and the federal government.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. World Health Organization (WHO). Countries vow to combat malnutrition through firm policies and actions. Joint WHO/FAO News Release. 14 Nov 2014.
  2. Davison, J. (2010). GM plants: Science, politics and EC regulations. Plant Science, 178(2): 94-98
  3. Schmitz, RJ. (2014). The Secret Garden—Epigenetic Alleles Underlie Complex Traits. Science, 343: 1082-1083.

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