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Scientists Genetically Modify Tobacco Mosaic Virus to Fight Crop Pests and Mosquitoes

The field of crop genetic engineering continues to mesmerize me, and I am sure everybody else, who has followed closely the proliferation of genetically modified crops. The ingenuity of scientists working in this field, and the impact their work is having on our lives is evidently confounding.

Since the commercialization of the first genetically modified (GM) crop ten years ago, crop geneticists are churning out new genetically modified organisms (GMOs) products at a lightning speed. In what now looks like a cut-throat competition, scientists are racing, at a maddening speed, to place more GMOs in the hands of farmers.

We already have high yielding genetically modified crops such as corn, Soya and canola. There are also genetically modified drought-tolerant crops that have suddenly changed the lives of farmers in arid and semi-arid parts of the world. And lately, scientists have developed pests resistant and herbicide tolerant crops. Farmers no longer incur expenditure on herbicides and pesticides.

Of all the marvels of crop genetic engineering, perhaps, last week’s announcement by researchers at the University of Florida that they have genetically modified tobacco mosaic virus capable of fighting crops pests and mosquitoes sounds to be the most interesting one.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the researchers led by Dov Borovsky explained that the tobacco mosaic virus “produces a natural environmentally friendly insecticide, turning the pathogen into a microscopic chemical factory.”

“The virus has a very broad host range so it can be used for very many plants. You can use it for monocotyledons plants like corns and grasses. But many of the other broad-related plants, including many fruits and vegetables could potentially be used with it,” further explain the researchers.

Leaves of these crops, according to these researchers, can be used to make insecticides, including those that are used to fight mosquitoes. This is exciting, especially to Africa, where millions die each year of mosquito-induced malaria. This virus, then, is like a double-edged sword.

What’s more reassuring is that the virus, even in its genetically modified composition, poses no threat to human health. Anti-biotechnology activists have no reason to charge that it will compromise the health of consumers.

The biotech industry must move fast to commercialize the genetically modified tobacco mosaic virus. And, perhaps, more importantly it must be easily accessible to farmers in developing countries.

About the Author: James Wachai is a communication expert, specializing in agricultural issues, and also authors GMO Africa Blog. On the web at

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