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The future of biotech plants and animals


On September 6, the non-profit group Pew Initiative on Food & Biotechnology announced that a new generation of genetically engineered products, ranging from blue roses to anti-HIV spinach, is being developed to benefit consumers, Reuters reports. The group claimed it has reviewed dozens of new gene-spliced plant and animal products being tested in laboratories to broaden an on-going public debate over the risks and benefits of biotechnology. Last year, the image of US biotech foods suffered because of the recall of many brands of taco shells, snack chips and other food accidentally contaminated with a corn variety known as StarLink. The report of the Pew Initiative on Food & Biotechnology did not endorse gene-spliced products or forecast that new ones would succeed in the market. "The report should not be viewed as an endorsement of biotechnology or any of the potential future applications," it said. "Much of the research cited is an early stage, and many of the applications face significant technical, economic, marketing and regulatory challenges before they can be commercialised." However, the report highlighted several innovative plants and animals. According to the Pew reports, gene-altered foods such as corn, lettuce, tomato, soybeans, cowpeas, potatoes and even tobacco could become an important way to vaccinate people against certain diseases cheaply and safely. Earlier this year, scientists at Thomas Jefferson University announced that they were working on gene-spliced spinach to produce proteins that would help suppress deadly HIV infection. According to the report, researchers introduced a gene expressing the protein into a common plant virus and then inserted the genetic material into the spinach plant. "Technology developers believe that edible vaccines could offer advantages over conventional immunisation programs by eliminating both the need for purification and the hazards associated with injection," the report said. Gene engineering also means that home gardeners and florists may soon see blue blossoms on carnations, chrysanthemums, roses, lilies and gerberas. Other project seeks to introduce a spider gene into goats so protein harvested from their milk can be used to make ultra-strong spider silk, which would be valuable in bullet-proof vests, surgical sutures and other industrial products. Other scientists are working on gene-spliced plants that could absorb or detoxify polluted soil and air. The new generation of bio-engineered products for consumers and industry is a departure from current gene-spliced plants, which were mostly designed to benefit farmers and herbicide manufacturers.

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