Advances in bio-engineering have made it theoretically possible to do just about anything to plants. In fact, many of the plants we have today have already been modified beyond all recognition from what they used to be. Carrots were originally white, scrawny roots; peaches were salty and cherry-sized; watermelons were small and bitter; and eggplants looked like eggs.
Our world — or at least our supermarkets and gardens — would look different without genetic modification. However, GM crops also carry significant drawbacks, and for all their promise to help us out of our messes, it’s clear how they land us in more.
Still, here are some of the most inventive and audacious ways humans won’t leave well enough alone.
10. Super air-purifying pothos
Typical of humans, our fuel-guzzling approach to purifying air with electrical air purifiers only compounds the problem. To provide an alternative, French company Neoplants has genetically modified a pothos (Devil’s ivy) plant right down to its roots to recycle airborne pollutants. They call it Neo P1 and, apparently, it is “capable of doing the air-purifying work of up to 30 plants.”
Plants are naturally better at absorbing and metabolizing volatile organic compounds (VOCs), but Neo P1 has been tweaked to excel — specifically targeting indoor VOCs like benzene, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, and toluene. Nothing is wasted; the compounds are broken down and recycled into the water, sugars, and amino acids Neo P1 needs to grow, along with oxygen to release into the air. To boost its efficacy, the roots of the plant also have genes from extremophile bacteria (bacteria that have evolved to survive inhospitable environments by feeding on toxins).
As the name of their first plant implies, Neoplants hope to create more air-purifying plants in the future. They also see their work as helpful in the “fight” against climate change.
9. Nitrogen-fixing crops
Rightly or wrongly, we’re obsessed with dietary protein. And legumes (beans, pulses, peanuts) are among the best plant sources of all — owing not only to how much protein they have but also to how they produce it.
Protein requires nitrogen, the bioavailability of which (i.e. the supply for use by organisms) is limited — hence its addition to fertilizer. Unlike most plants, however, legumes pluck it straight from the air. This is called ‘nitrogen-fixing’. Genetically modifying other staple crops to do the same would revolutionize agriculture around the world, especially in poor countries, by eliminating the need for expensive, climate-worsening fertilizers.
Critics say it’ll take a long time, though, and point out the existing problems of GM crops — such as herbicide-tolerant weeds. And obviously there are other, more direct ways to alleviate global poverty.
8. Cocaine tobacco
This one’s a game-changer in an indirect way. Don’t expect to see your local dealer offering a special new type of shiny white tobacco. Researchers were interested in genetically modifying plants to produce cocaine to study its evolution as a pesticide and its potential applications in medicine.
Cocaine production in coca plants has long been veiled in mystery, in part because of how labor-intensive it is to grow coca in a lab. The answer scientists in China came up with was to genetically reconstruct, in a tobacco plant’s genome, the biochemical pathway by which cocaine is produced. Some parts of the chain they left the tobacco plant to come up with itself, and the result was tobacco leaves containing cocaine. The implications for finding new medicines are significant.
According to the researchers, the amount of cocaine produced wasn’t enough to make it a viable black market enterprise and, in any case, the process is too technical for the average clandestine drugs lab. However, the researchers themselves are working on it, hoping to ramp up the tobacco plant’s output.
7. Scorpion venom cabbage
Genetic modification and pesticides are two of our most toxic contributions as a species. So why not combine them into one? In a bid to consolidate the damage we’ve done, scientists took the venom gene from deadly scorpion tails, engineered it to only kill insects, and put it in a cabbage. What could go wrong?
Although early tests confirmed no toxicity to humans, the concept is riddled with problems. For one thing, the study tested human breast cancer cells in vitro, not healthy human cells in vivo. Furthermore, the cabbage itself could be harmed. The genetic modification could escape and infect non-GM specimens. And, as with existing pesticides, it could destabilize whole ecosystems.
The FDA has a long track record of ignoring such issues when approving GMOs, though — even when they contribute nothing. In this case, since the pesticide effect of venomous cabbage depends on insects actually eating it, it’s likely that farmers would also use pesticide sprays just to keep insects at bay. In other words, consumers would get double the toxins.
6. Endospore oak
Oak trees are, to the scientific mind, intolerably inefficient. Not only do they produce far more acorns than ever take root, but they waste millions of cells by shedding their leaves every autumn. What if, instead of rotting away on the ground, those cells transformed into millions of spores, spread by the wind, each capable of cloning their source. This would be a superior evolutionary strategy, and there is, apparently, “no biological principle … forbidding … [reproduction] by both spores and seeds.” And, unlike acorns, endospores can remain viable for millions of years.
Again, though, there are serious problems. Endospore oak trees are one thing, but what about endospore knotweed? Unless this particular genetic modification is strictly limited to “beneficial plants” (and even then), “superweeds may overrun the Earth.”
As usual, just because we see a gap in the market, so to speak, doesn’t mean we ought to exploit it. After all, trees would also be more efficient if they evolved to “walk” faster than they already do, and if they learned to hunt with poison gasses or spikes. It’s just not the kind of world most of us want.
5. Supernutritious fruit and veg
Genetically modifying plants to provide more nutritional value is nothing new. We already have protein-boosted potatoes, corn, and rice; linseed with higher levels of omega-3 and -6; tomatoes with snapdragon antioxidants; and lettuce with more digestible iron. There are also carrots that increase our calcium absorption, and the so-called “golden banana,” an Australian frankenfruit splicing the common banana with an orange Papua New Guinean variety high in provitamin A. Typically, however, human interference is the reason for low nutrition in the first place. So we’re skeptical.
Scientists hoping to revolutionize our crops by 2028 put their faith in super-accurate CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing. The possibilities are many (and stupid): beans that taste like chicken nuggets; carrots that taste like potato chips; potatoes with hamburgers in the middle; and sunflower seeds the size of small eggs to be eaten like apples.
Some of the less childish ideas include hypoallergenic peanuts and lentils with as much protein as meat. But they all raise questions of how much control humans should have over nature, especially considering the mess we’ve made as it is.
4. Pollution-eating poplars
Phytoremediation is the process by which some plants clean up pollution — drawing contaminants up through their roots, breaking them down into harmless byproducts, and either using them or releasing them in the air. It’s another way plants have been pressed into service undoing the damage we’ve done. But, scientists say, they don’t do it well enough. They’re too slow.
The solution has been to genetically modify poplars to break down trichloroethylene (TCE) more efficiently. TCE is the most common groundwater contaminant found at the most polluted sites in America. Once promoted by the pharmaceutical industry as an anesthetic, it’s now a known carcinogen that lingers for a long time in the air, water, and soil wherever it’s used. And, given its continuing use in many household cleaning products, it’s a problem that’s only getting worse.
The research into genetically modified phytoremediation is promising, though. Whereas unmodified poplars removed just three percent of TCE from a solution, poplars boosted with additional enzymes from rabbit livers removed as much as 91 percent. They also fared better, not withering as usual but actually growing more robustly. And it’s not just TCE they can deal with but a suite of other chemicals, including vinyl chloride (used to make plastics) and benzene (an airborne pollutant from petroleum).
3. Vaccine banana
The (artificially inflated) cost of vaccines means the Third World often doesn’t get them, and kids keep dying from easily preventable diseases — like diarrhoea. One solution scientists have come up with is to genetically modify crops to include the vaccines in their genome.
An early proof of concept successfully delivered hepatitis B antigens to rats from specially engineered potatoes. However, since potatoes aren’t eaten raw, the research switched to bananas. Not only are they cheap, they’re also a well established crop in “developing” countries. And just 10 hectares of vaccine banana plantation would, they say, be enough to vaccinate all children in Mexico under the age of five.
Properly administering a vaccine banana isn’t as simple as peeling the skin and eating it, though. The plan is to purée the fruit and bottle it up (10 doses per bottle) to ensure each patient gets the right dose. Other crops scientists have experimented with include lettuce, carrots, and tobacco.
2. DARPA’s intelligent trees
In 2017, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) put out a call for proposals to its Advanced Plant Technologies (APT) program. They’re specifically interested in genetically modifying plants to “gather intelligence” about, for example, environmental pathogens and radiation. Detecting the presence of whatever they’re designed to, the “sentinel plants” would “report” via “discreet response mechanisms” such as subtle changes in leaf color.
Unlike sophisticated hardware, plants offer stealth, easy distribution, and energy independence. And the concept has already been proven. In 2011, researchers successfully engineered a TNT-detecting plant, the leaves of which would de-green in the presence (in soil or air) of TNT molecules. And all plants naturally respond to their environment through an input/output dynamic comparable to that of computers. Like bomb-sniffing dogs, it’s really just a case of training natural mechanisms to better serve the military.
However, DARPA wants to take things further, beyond simple on/off bio-computing to more nuanced detection and reliable, detailed reporting. They even expressed an interest in engineering plants to pick up on electromagnetic signals.
1. Dyson tree
You’ve probably heard of the Dyson sphere. Proposed by physicist Freeman Dyson, it’s a hypothetical structure built to enclose a star and capture its energy. Less well known is the Dyson tree. Genetically engineered for space, with thick glass bark to allow sunlight in and stop heat escaping, this hypothetical plant would be seeded on a comet and create its own atmosphere. In theory, it could support a whole ecosystem — at least for a time — with the inside of the comet hollowed out for inhabitants and the comet’s ice and carbon providing everything the “leafy spaceship” needs.
If it seems like science fiction, that’s because it is. But it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Plants like the voodoo lily and carrion flower do generate their own heat; in fact, the skunk cabbage generates up to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which is enough to melt frozen ground around it.
There’s also no shortage of comets. The Kuiper belt past Neptune, which has trillions of comets, could potentially be seeded with enough Dyson trees to become a cosmic “archipelago of city states”. A Dyson tree comet the size of Manhattan could support millions of humans alone. And, with little gravity, not only would it be easy to hop between comets, but structures on each could be taller than on Earth.