The First GMO Is 8,000 Years Old

Scientists find that bacteria modified DNA in sweet potatoes millennia ago

Sweet Potatoes
Carol Sharp / Flowerphotos/

With the recent approval of GMO apples and potatoes by the FDA, it’s tempting to think of genetically-modified organisms as both modern and scientific. But it turns out that the first GMO was produced by another kind of scientist…nature. In fact, reports NPR’s Michaeleen Doucleff, soil bacteria created the first genetically modified crop 8,000 years ago.

Doucleff writes that scientist from Peru’s International Potato Center, a genebank and research institution devoted to all things potato, looked at the genes of 291 sweet potato varieties grown worldwide. They found evidence of the same set of bacterial genes in each one of them — a finding they call “rather remarkable” in the paper they published about the research.

It seems like soil bacteria is behind the find. The team’s research suggests that the bacteria infected ancient plants, inserting its DNA into wild sweet potatoes that were then planted (and replanted) by ancient peoples who found them to be edible. Over time, they say, the infected potato became domesticated and widely disseminated. In fact, notes Doucleff, sweet potatoes have been declared the world’s seventh most important crop by the United Nations. And all of those, all cultivated sweet potatoes, contain the DNA.

“Given that this crop has been eaten for millennia,” says the research team, “it may change the paradigm governing the ‘unnatural’ status of transgenic crops.” The study’s lead author, virologist Jan Kreuze, tells Doucleff that his work shows that “people have been eating a GMO for thousands of years without knowing it.”

So will the fact that GMOs can occur naturally help to quell the argument about their safety? Not exactly. GMO expert Greg Jaffe tells Doucleff that the finding isn’t “all that surprising” given how easy it is to insert DNA into crops. He predicts that given worries about GMOs’ effects on pesticides and intellectual property, the new findings won’t do much to change the debate…or convince consumers that GMOs are safe. And another recent finding (this one in court) might prove him right. Last month, a Vermont judge cleared the way for that state’s GMO labeling law to move forward, a move that many predict will bolster GMO labeling laws (and debates) in other states.

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