Questions About US “Pharmaceutical” Plant Research

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“One of the reasons I started working in nanotechnology was so I could apply it to plants and create new technology solutions. Not just for food, but for high-value products as well, like pharmaceuticals.” So says the University of California Riverside’s Juan Pablo Giraldo, lead researcher on a National Science Foundation-funded grant to create new GMOs by incorporating mRNA into plant cells so the molecule replicates in plant tissue. mRNA or “messenger ribonucleuc acid” medicines instruct and enlist cells to make proteins to prevent or treat certain diseases, says vaccine-maker Moderna.   

A GMO or genetically modified organism is considered one whose genetic material makeup does not occur in nature but has been produced by enhancing, altering, or knocking out naturally occurring genes.

According to the UCR press release, Giraldo’s research has already demonstrated that plants’ chloroplasts can be made to express foreign genes that have been introduced into them even if the genes are not part of their natural biology. “Our idea is to repurpose naturally occurring nanoparticles, namely plant viruses, for gene delivery to plants,” said Nicole Steinmetz a researcher from UC San Diego who is collaborating with Giraldo. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University are also working with Giraldo. 

When GMO Plants Become GMO Crops 

News reports suggest that mRNA-producing plants could “vaccinate people through their salad,” if they were afraid of needles or just wanted an easier vaccination route.  Reports also cite another benefit: the plants could solve cold storage problems that plague COVID-19 vaccine production.

Other voices, though, express worry that people could become exposed to the GMO plants unwittingly if they bought or ate mRNA lettuce or spinach, the first two plants under development, sold as crops.

Giraldo says he envisions  farmers growing “entire fields”  of the plants as well as people cultivating them “in their own gardens.”  But GMO crops have posed hazards in the past. Gene flow from GMO crops to non-altered/non-GMO crops along with broad-spectrum herbicides can “increase the risk of herbicide resistant weed populations,” says Wikipedia. Resistant insects who are not targeted can also emerge and GMOs cause a significant loss of biodiversity. There have also been concerns about the negatives effect of GMOs and associated herbicides on butterfly populations.

Controversy Surrounded GMO Salmon 

Concerns about GMOs altering the genetic makeup of natural marine organisms marred the release of the genetically modified AquAdvantage salmon for years. According to the Associated Press, large U.S. grocery retailers, seafood companies and restaurants such as Costco, Kroger, Walmart and Whole Foods have claimed they don’t sell genetically modified or cloned salmon. If they choose to sell the GMO AquAdvantage salmon clear labels—and explanations–would no doubt be required. 

The salmon’s briefing materials released, during 2009 FDA hearings which I attended, revealed 71 percent of the GMO salmon sported “irregularities”–problems also seen with cloned foods.

GMO Plants May Produce mRNA Salad

Despite funding of half a million dollars by the National Science Foundation, mRNA introduction in plants is not without risks. “Some engineering goes into this to make the nanoparticles go to the chloroplasts and also to render them non-infectious toward the plants,” says researcher Nicole Steinmetz.

And, unlike researcher Juan Pablo Giraldo, many do not regard plants as “technology solutions”  but rather as integral parts of the natural world that should not be engineered.

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