Kumara, a South American native that became a Kiwi favourite, has been naturally genetically modified with bacterial DNA, researchers have found.
But the foreign genes are generally only found in kumara – also known as sweet potatoes – that have been cultivated by humans, suggesting they bring with them beneficial traits.
Researchers hope the finding, published in the latest issue of journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, will help to break down negative perceptions of genetically engineered crops.
They looked at 291 samples of cultivated kumara from this part of the world, the Americas, Asia and Africa, as well as a number of wild varieties. In every single cultivated sample, they found DNA from Agrobacterium bacteria, which are able to insert genes into plants and widely used in deliberate genetic engineering nowadays.
The particular DNA region discovered, and the genes it carried, were not present in any of the wild samples.
The widespread presence of the bacterial genes suggests it has been a part of cultivated kumara's genetic makeup since "evolutionary times". The implication is the transgenic genes were selected for during the plant's early domestication.
The scientists behind the finding say the discovery might change people's negative opinions of genetically engineered food, considering the way in which kumara appears to have been naturally modified is remarkably similar to modern methods of genetic manipulation.
"Our finding, that sweet potato is naturally transgenic while being a widely and traditionally consumed food crop, could affect the current consumer distrust of the safety of transgenic food crops."
Kumara was domesticated sometime between 8000 and 10,000 years ago – one of the oldest crops in the Americas. Its presence in New Zealand has added weight to claims early Polynesians had two-way contact with South American tribes.
source: newshub archive