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ARTICLE: Natural GMOs: The Sweet Potato

The following is an article posted by Layla Katiraee to the website Biology Fortified on how the sweet potato is a naturally genetically modified organism.

Several months ago, a paper was published about sweet potatoes being “natural GMOs”. It got a lot of coverage in the press. I thought that it was high time that I read the original paper to see what it was all about.

Agrobacterium induced gall (Wikimedia commons)


The paper is freely available in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). The paper starts by defining horizontal gene transfer. This naturally occurring process is when a gene goes from one species to another, and has been studied quite a bit in bacteria. Scientists are starting to identify instances of horizontal gene transfer in non-bacterial organisms: sometimes the gene that gets transferred ends up being non-functional, but sometimes it continues performing its original function. Consequently, horizontal gene transfer can be important in the evolution of species.

When individuals oppose GMOs claiming that these are not natural since scientists are taking a gene from one species and adding it to another, it is often pointed out that horizontal gene transfer happens “naturally” without any human intervention. To understand this point (and the importance of this paper), it is necessary to explain one of the more common methods that scientists use for transgenesis: Agrobacterium-mediated transformation.

Read the rest of the article here.