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Sweet potato ‘genetically modified’ by nature

Sweet potatoes naturally contain “foreign” genes from Agrobacterium. Photo by Photo courtesy of Ghent University.

April 22, 2015, Ghent, Belgium – Researchers from Ghent University and the International Potato Institute have discovered sweet potatoes naturally contain genes from a bacterium. Because of the presence of this “foreign” DNA, the sweet potato can be seen as a “natural GMO.”

May 1, 2015  By Ghent University

The researchers discovered the foreign DNA sequences of Agrobacterium while searching the genome, which contains the entire DNA-code of sweet potato, for viral diseases. Instead of contributing this peculiar finding to bacterial contamination of the plant samples, the researchers decided to study these sequences in more detail.

The sequences appeared to be present in each of the 291 tested sweet potato cultivars and even in some wild related species. Different research methods confirmed the same conclusion: the specific sequences are not due to contamination, but rather they are part of the sweet potato genome. The genes in the foreign DNA sequences were also shown to be active in sweet potato, which can indicate that they provide a positive characteristic which was selected for by the farmers during domestication.

The natural presence of Agrobacterium demonstrates that genetic modification also happens in nature. In comparison to “natural” GMOs, which are beyond our control, human-made GMOs have an advantage in that we know exactly which characteristics we are adding to the plant.



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