This blog post by Pam Baker originally appeared on the Alberta Epigenetics Network website on 28 February 2019.
Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are controversial. Scientists say GMO foods are our only hope in feeding a growing human population that is increasingly threatened by famine from climate change. Skeptics are afraid of unintended consequences that changing DNA may have in the future. But there may be another way to address these issues. Epigenetics, which changes how genes are expressed but leaves the plant’s or animal’s original DNA fully intact and unaffected, may be the solution.
Researchers say a recent study on how plants epigenetically pass on disease and pest resistance to offspring present intriguing possibilities.
"It is likely that plants have multiple epigenetic mechanisms to control their immune system, but what is important about our research is that we have identified key loci of DNA methylation at the center of the plant's chromosomes, which control heritable disease resistance by influencing the responsiveness of defense genes across the plant's genome,” said Professor Jurriaan Ton from the University of Sheffield's P3 Plant Production and Protection Centre, and lead researcher in this study, in an interview with Phys.Org.
In short, it may be possible to use a plant’s own process for developing and maintaining immunity instead of applying poisons and pesticides to and around crops. This would be highly beneficial to humans who can suffer from side effects from the exposure or consumption of pesticides.
But it would also benefit insects that farmers depend on to pollinate crops as they are often victims of pesticides too. Livestock can also be harmed by pesticide runoff in drinking water, or by eating plants covered in these poisons. It would also be of benefit to the larger environment as wild plants and animals also are affected by large scale agricultural use of pesticides.
To see just how much damage pesticides inflict on humans, animals, plants and the environment at large, check out this short video.
And so it is that there is much to cheer about in this report. Epigenetics could save human health, birds, bats, all kinds of other animals including livestock, water purity, air purity, wild plants, and other nuances in the affected ecosystems. And it could do so, without manipulating or changing the DNA in any plant or animal.
However, there is still a bit more research to be done, particularly on food yields.
The researchers say that further research is needed to “determine whether it is possible to breed crop plants with lower levels of methylation at specific DNA locations to improve disease resistance, but without decreasing the amount and quality of food produced.”
Still, this is encouraging news so far. And it’s another piece on a growing pile of evidence that epigenetics is more important to human health than anyone first realized.