How Mother Nature Makes GMOs

3d-rendering-of-dnaWhat if we could watch evolution occur? What if we could observe natural selection as it takes place, and gain an understanding about how and why genetic information changes in different plant species? Time-lapse plant videos are awesome, but this would be taking things to a whole new level.

There is a new study that aims to do just this. The study is funded by the National Science Foundation, and it is being led by scientists at the University of Minnesota. It’s called “Project Baseline” and it promises to shed some much needed light on the nature of genetic adaptation in plants.

If you paid any attention in science class, you know that the genetic makeup of plants changes over time. Scientists believe that these changes are based on natural selection – due to changes in environmental conditions, competition for resources, the behavior of predators and parasites, etc. Scientists have observed several genetic adaptations in plants, and for each adaptation they have theorized which environmental conditions caused each natural selection to occur… But they can never be sure, because the changes happened at an unknown time in the past.

Project Baseline will allow scientists to observe the genetic changes that occur in plants over a 50 year period, while various data about the environmental conditions of the plants are also tracked and recorded. By comparing genetic changes against historic environmental changes, the scientists should be able to correlate specific changes to their specific causes. This project might provide the first real-time glimpse of plant evolution in progress in the wild.

At this point, you might be picturing a bunch of scientists with a DeLorean and a lightning rod, but unfortunately they’re planning to do this whole experiment without a time machine. Here’s how it works:

Seeds will be collected from the wild. Those seeds will be divided into lots and stored in cryogenic preservation. Every 10 years, some of the seeds from the original collection will be thawed, to be compared against newly collected seeds from the wild. They will do a comparison at 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 years from the original collection. In this way, scientists will be able to identify genetic changes that occur in the wild over each 10 year period. They will then compare those changes against a timeline of environmental conditions, illuminating the likely causes for each particular change.

The study will collect wild seeds from a representative sample of several species of plants, including populations at different latitudes, longitudes, elevations, and ecosystems.

The process they are using has been proved by scientists in the past. It is known as the “resurrection method.” In several cases, ancient seed has been naturally preserved by tundra or sediment in a way that preserved the seed’s DNA. Scientists compare the ancient DNA against the DNA of the plant’s modern descendants. So, they know this works. But observing two strands of DNA separated by hundreds or thousands of years provides little information about the nature of the changes that have taken place over that long timeline. It is impossible to know when or why specific adaptations occurred.

Project Baseline will offer new insight into specific genetic adaptations that scientists have long theorized but have never directly observed. One of the biggest mysteries that might be explained by Project Baseline is the rate of evolution in the wild. That is, how quickly do plants adapt? Do they adapt all at once, or is there a natural progression of adaptation that we have never understood?

These are big questions with big implications, and there are many scientists today, in various fields, that could benefit from a better understanding of nature’s mechanism for genetic adaptation.

This study seems to have arrived at a very important time. Some scientists today believe that global warming will increase rapidly in the coming years and decades. Other scientists believe that we are on the verge of a minor ice age. Whatever happens, the next 50 years might hold plenty of change for the scientists to observe. Until they get that DeLorean working, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Project Baseline’s Official Page – Project Baseline – A Seedbank to Study Plant Evolution

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  • wil says:

    Adaptacion no es evolución. El uso del concepto GMO natural puede ser perverso y prestarse a manipulaciones por las empresas interesadas. !CUIDADO!

  • Wow Michael, that was a really interesting article. I hope to be able to follow this for a long time…. ha, ha if I am lucky another 50 or 60 years?

  • GT says:

    What a drone; ‘mother nature’ doesn’t do anything but fool you with margarine, and certainly doesn’t make ‘GMO’s. Because you seem to be ignorant of the differences, I must inform that GMO is a totally different thing from natural (wild) genetic processes, as well as traditional mendelian breeding & hybridization. The processes and the results are so discretely different that they truly cannot be compared.

    Further, ‘Mother Nature’ (a druidic-like, or even Wiccan-like goddess form) is a heathen-pagan idol (~like Gaia of today’s ‘new age’ zombies), but even if ‘she’ weren’t, ‘she’ would not be blending other classes of species like bugs, bacteria, or what have you into ‘her’ creations. That would be totally synthetic, unnatural, and even a blasphemy to ‘her’ and her worshippers & acolytes…

    As a Follower of my Creator (NOT ‘mother nature’) I find your comparison not only ill-informed, but also heretical. I realize you may be ‘talking down’ to laypeople, but by doing so, you play into, and buttress, ‘their’ evolution garbage programming (‘school’ & ‘science’ push Santa Claus and evolution mythos, neither of which have any TRUE empirical backing, except near-religious beliefs held by zealots of the science god…[goddess?] )

    Don’t get me wrong; I detest ALL the so-called religions of this world, so understand that I am against the propaganda and brain-washing of the schools, and their idolizing of secular ‘science’ gods, evolution, and all other false and deceptive drivel–programs to mis-shape the beliefs of our children. You are feeding that system by your unwitting (I presume your ignorance) support of these fundamental means used to support the droning of America (as in collective , hive-minded drones-).
    Your secularized gub’ment programming is showing…

    Brother, Please keep that hive-speak to yourself, or better yet, get wise to the reality of it, learn how/why ‘they’ do it, and where it is leading us, as a society.

  • Jenni says:

    Most people probably already know, but perhaps a few don’t, evolution and natural selection are two completely different concepts and in no way can GMOs and natural selection be compared. A genetically modified organism has a gene from an unrelated species, such as a bacteria, virus, or animal, forced into a plant.

  • Aimee says:

    Interesting project aside, this article has nothing at all to do with GMO’s, so why are you bringing them up in the title? Evolution is not even close to the same thing as genetic engineering.

  • TED says:

    “Mother Nature” does NOT make GMOs! GMOs are created using an UNnatural process where single genes (alien to the recipient) are forced into the DNA. The genes that are inserted into plant DNA in GMO crops come from completely different organisms such as viruses, fungi, bacteria, animals and in some cases humans. “Mother Nature” doesn’t work this way. Natural selection is a completely natural process where the strongest plants survive to pass on their ENTIRE DNA. It has nothing to do with inserting genes that are alien to the plant. PLEASE change the title of this article to something that does not suggest that GMO crops are in any way “natural”!

  • Jeff says:

    Why are comments disappearing from this article? Yesterday, Dexter left one, and I left two ? ? ? ? ? If we take the time to comment – we expect it to be displayed. Otherwise, there are other sites we’ll share our thoughts with.

    1. Michael Ford says:

      Hi Jeff – We just moved servers yesterday, and we lost a couple of hours of updates. Your comments must have fallen into that time frame. Please feel free to re-post your comment, and it’ll be right back up here. Sorry for the inconvenience.

      1. Jeff says:

        Michael, thank you for explaining this and I appologize for over reacting prematurely. I’ll try to remember and re-submit my original posts, but sadly it was similar to most of the posts above )o:

  • Michael Ford says:

    Note to self: Nobody likes a GMO joke. Duly noted.

    I hope some people actually read the article, and not just the headline, because I think it’s a pretty cool project they’re doing.

    1. Jeff says:

      Michael, one of my favorite ways of communicating is through anologies. No anology is ever perfect but some are worse than others. And though your anaology may not have been the best, it also touched on a very sensitive, very passionate nerve for me – and perhaps most GYOG members.

      Aside from that, the article was interesting. It’s important that people – your readers – know this kind of stuff is being thought about, reserched and (sadly) funded with our tax dollars.

  • Jeff says:

    Plants are not the only living thing that evolves through natural selection – almost every animal on the planet does – including humans. Historically, as plant life has evolved and geological conditions have changed, animals and their digestion, assimilation, and metabolism has evolved – over tens of thousands of years. But now – through the advent of modern agriculture and GMOs – we are drastically changing the diet of our livestock and our children in just a few years.

    Our cows and chickens have not evolved to be equipped to digest the mono-crop-diet we currently feed them. (Or if GT would prefer — our livestock has not been designed by God to be equipped to digest today’s mono-crop-diet). Nor are our children equipped to thrive on a diet devoid of biodiversity and laden with corn, corn syrup, soy, sugar, and other refined, processed foods.

    Monsanto … Round-Up … GMOs … etc. have drastically modified our entire food system in the last 20 years – we humans CANNOT evolve and adapt that fast. It will take generations … it will take hundreds if not thousands of years. I think the U of MN is studying the wrong thing. Their conclusions regarding natural selection after a 50 year study will be of zero significance.

    So “yes” I agree – let’s not obfuscate the difference between GMOs and Mother Nature’s natural selection any more than Monsanto’s PR and lobbyists already have. But also the U of MN should focus on the weeds that are currently evolving (rapidly) to become resistant to glyphosate and 2,4-d. This natural selection of weeds is occurring in just 2 or 3 years – not 50. Quite honestly, I don’t think the impending global warming or ice age in 50+ years will be an issue. I do think the genetic modifications that are taking place today represent a far greater threat.

  • Dyson says:

    The implication is that when an organism’s genes are modified for a specific function, for example to increase corn yield, those same genes could also be outfitted with this custom re-coding to make them dependent on a steady supply of a synthetic amino acid that can’t be procured in the wild. In the case of crops, that could be supplied through custom fertilizer – a concept that is similar to how existing GMO crops are engineered to work in tandem with certain herbicides.

    1. Jeff says:

      Dyson, I thought this thread had died. I think this issue is incredibly important – so I thank you for keeping it alive. However, your position on GMOs is not clear to me.

      You reference an ‘implication’ that genetically modified organisms will – in theory – increase crop yield, and ‘could’ (may or may not) make such organisms dependent on a synthetic amino acid that does not occur naturally. I.E. dependent upon a ‘custom fertilizer’ (available only through Monsanto and one of six other corporate conglomerates).

      Would you agree, Dyson, that under no circumstances is this technology of monopolistic co-dependence a good thing?

      Would you – and other [Grow] readers agree that – despite Michael’s less-than-popular analogy between GMO’s and Mother Nature’s natural selection – this topic could be more critical than any other topic, issue or article that [Grow], Marjory and Michael have posted?

  • Richard says:

    When I first saw this e-mail my blood began to boil. Reading it did not help, so I waited a little time to calm down before responding.

    This single e-mail undermines and seriously damages all the good work you have done for years. The title is either a lie, propaganda paid for my industrial ag seed companies or a foolish mistake by someone who has no clue about the horror of GMO crops, and how nature actually works. The reason serious farmers and gardeners are opposed to GMOs is that nature never has, nor ever will create a GMO. GMOs do not rise out of evolution and natural selection or even human manipulated gene work in the garden. Go do your research, please. Then, apologize to your readers.

    1. Jeff says:

      Richard, I believe that Michael has already explained and somewhat apologized for the title and slant of this article. I believe he feels that the response some readers had was unfortunate and certainly unintended.

      “Stuff Happens” and we all make mistakes. What concerns me more is the relatively low number of readers that responded to or commented on this GMO/evolution-related article. It is my opinion and observation that Americans are becoming very complacent and accepting of GMOs. I still can’t believe that most efforts to require GMO labeling are failing. In fact, there is legislation in congress right now trying to make it illegal for any state to require GMO labeling.

      And labeling is nothing! We should be fighting for legislation to outlaw the use of GMOs. Even TED talks won’t touch the issue. Even Permies.com won’t allow GMO blog entries. Listen, this is not “pseudoscience”, TED. What do the scientists in Europe and Asia know about GMOs that US scientists are either too stupid to figure out, or are afraid to publish, or are being paid not to publish?

      The use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides continues to increase at alarming rates. And GMOs, Roundup and others have enabled this to occur. There are multiple health studies that tie many diseases (e.g. autistic birthrates) to high-ag/high-pesticide areas of the country (California and Iowa/Nebraska/Illinois). There is evidence that links neonicotinoids to colony collapse disorder in honey bees. Monarch butterflies are facing extinction because of the indiscriminate killing of milkweed – a direct result of the use of Roundup by corporate ag. We lost 3/4″ of topsoil in the last 10 years because of use (or abuse) of chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and annual mono-cropping. We should expect to lose another 1″ over the next 10 years and more than 6” to 7” over the next 50 years. How will this affect “Project Baseline”?

      We are killing the soil. We are killing the Earth. And nobody seems to really care… And before anyone argues that point – tell me which presidential candidate is talking about this problem. Which political party has included GMOs in their platform. Hell, I’ll settle for any senator, representative or governor – anywhere in the country – willing to take a stand against GMOs! Sadly, we just don’t care. Americans will eat anything: bigger, faster, fatter, sweeter, cheaper, easier; there is little to no concern for healthy, sustainable, or environmentally safe. Shoot – we can’t even trust our own EPA, FDA, HHS or USDA. Their only concerns are complying with the biggest lobbyists and placating the biggest voting blocks.

      And despite the wonderful work that has been done by Mark Shepard, Ben Falk and others on “restoration farming” – it will be nearly impossible to reverse the trends that modern ag has set in motion.

      Perhaps what the U of MN is doing will provide some useful information in 40 or 50 years… perhaps we will have a better understanding of how plants evolved in response to global warming, ice ages, water shortages, or even glyphosates and 2,4-D. But – at the rate we’re going – it will be too late for the monarch butterfly; it will be too late for the honey bee (and the many crops that depend on them); it will be too late for our disappearing top soil; it will be too late for the millions of babies born with autism, the millions of people dying of cancer, the millions of people dying from obesity and heart disease, and a myriad of other calamities facing modern society.

      But at least – if anyone survives – they’ll know exactly how some plants tried to evolve and survive the mistakes of greedy corporate ag and our own complacent society.

      1. Jeff says:

        Michael, ordinarily you do a great job editing our posts. And thank you for that. BUT – the last line of my last post intentionally challenged our “complacent, ignorant society”. You edited that down to only “complacent”. I strongly urge you to conduct your own survey of the general public OUTSIDE your [Grow] readers. Ask them:
        • What GMO stands for
        • What GMOs represent
        • How they are developed
        • The effect that GMO pesticides and herbicides have on our arable land
        • The effect that GMOs have had on the small or family-farm industry
        • The negative affect that GMOs have had on economically-challenged, developing countries
        • The effect that GMO’s have on the food our livestock consumes
        • The effect that GMO’s have on the food WE consume
        • The difference between the 60 day studies Monsanto publishes
        ⁃ vs the 4-5 month studies done by independent labs in other countries.
        • The benefits or problems with GMO labeling
        • … etc, etc. Michael – I could go on and on … but

        What you’ll find is that our society is – by and large – IGNORANT of GMOs. I’m not saying that they’re stupid or have low IQs. I’m simply saying that our society is woefully ignorant (unaware) of the threat that GMOs pose – both directly and indirectly.

        1. Michael Ford says:

          Hi Jeff – I don’t doubt that the general public is unaware of the basic facts about GMOs. I love that you’re passionate about correcting this – I think that’s great. My change was to correct what I read as a negative tone. We try to keep things positive around here – even when we’re talking about overwhelmingly negative issues 🙂 Thanks again for commenting and taking part in the conversation – Michael

          1. Jeff says:

            I can respect that — and, in the future, I will attempt to be less negative. However, the PC equivalent for the adjective “ignorant” will not only require more words, but it will also obfuscate the problematic situation that currently challenges our insufficiently informed society.

          2. Michael Ford says:

            Hi Jeff – I was really thinking about the effectiveness of the message. I think that for your average Joe, if you tell him he’s “unaware” he will have a natural desire to become “aware,” or at least that’s true for your average Michael. But if you tell Joe that he’s “ignorant” he’s more likely to shut you out and move along. Just my opinion – I guess I have a more negative association with the word “ignorant” than some others do.

            By the way, I thought about this thread when I read this little tidbit in the news over the weekend: Scientists call for new review of herbicide, cite ‘flawed’ U.S. regulations. Maybe not a game-changer, but at least a little fuel on the fire of public debate. Have a good one – Michael

          3. Jeff says:

            Point well taken. If “unaware” results in more interest and action than “ignorant” then I would agree – a softer language would be advisable.

            And thank you for the Reuter’s link. It will be interesting to see what kind of response and results it has. I’ll cite one paragraph to demonstrate my point:

            “The authors also argue that the EPA has erred in recently approving a new herbicide that uses glyphosate because it relied on outdated studies commissioned by the manufacturers and gave little consideration to potential health effects in children.”

            RECENTLY? The EPA approved the use of RoundUP way back in 1992! (And has since continued to approve every Monsanto request for increased concentrations.) And it did so based on research done by the same company (Monsanto) that developed Agent Orange – and now hopes to make billions off a slightly less deadly version (RoundUP).

            I probably would have used slightly stronger language. Shouldn’t we use terms to fit the crime? Don’t we want to incite a few more concerned parents?

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