Magazine article The Futurist

Genes in Space

Magazine article The Futurist

Genes in Space

Article excerpt

Low-gravity laboratories may facilitate genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering is proving to be much easier in space. Recent experiments aboard the space shuttle have shown that genes can be transferred to soybeans 10 times more successfully in the near weightlessness of space than on Earth.

These findings may give the agricultural biotech industry a boost, allowing more products--such as pest resistant crops or foods that contain edible vaccines--to reach the market more quickly and cheaply, according to Purdue University researcher Richard Vierling, one of the scientists who created the experiments.

However, there is still "a lot of work to be done," cautions Vierling. For instance, scientists don't yet know why gene transfer works better in space. Another experiment, scheduled to fly aboard the space shuttle in April 2001, may provide more clues.

When scientists want to genetically alter a plant, they typically use a bacterium that infects plants and inserts some of its genetic material into plant cells, Vierling explains. The bacterium extends a tube that penetrates the plant cell's wall, and the genetic material is transferred via this tube. Usually, the bacterial gene causes abnormal plant cell growth, producing bulbous growths or "galls" on a plant that serve as home for the bacteria. But scientists have figured out how to use the bacteria to transfer beneficial, rather than harmful, genes to the plant.

This tactic's low success rate, however, has stymied research. …

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