Frankenfoods, meet your match. A new technology called TILLING (short for “Targeting Induced Local Lesions In Genomes”), may eventually overtake conventional genetic modification (GM) of food. Unlike GM, which takes a desired gene from one organism and inserts it into another, TILLING relies on a plant’s own DNA for modifications. During the process, scientists chemically induce genetic mutations and then use TILLING to isolate the mutations and determine what those genes actually do. They then use what they’ve learned to breed plants with added nutritional value or decreased risk of triggering food allergies. 

Since 2002, scientists at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Crop Production and Pest Control research unit, on the campus of Purdue University, have been using TILLING to develop more nutritious soybeans. As a result of this work, trans-fat free, nonhydrogenated soybean oil may be available by next year; in time, they also hopet to make soybeans that are allergen free. This could be a major breakthrough because soy, now a pervasive component of many prepackaged foods, is also one of the top eight allergenic foods.

Though GM crops can have lots of potential benefits, they have proven incredibly controversial. Detractors have expressed concerns about everything from the safety of eating foods containing “unnatural” genes, to the potential for GM crops to crossbreed with wild plants, to the morality of allowing a plant’s DNA sequence to be co-opted as “intellectual property” and therefore controlled by the company that created it. 

Though environmental groups have not as of yet targeted TILLING as a potentially dangerous or immoral practice, the question of whether it has the same or similar implications as GM crops has yet to be addressed. The process is still so new that many organizations, including scientific ones, are still getting up to speed on it (the Union of Concerned Scientists declined to comment, saying it wants to learn more about the process before making any remarks). Only time and more research will answer these questions. In the meantime, we plan to keep eating organic.

Story by Jacqulyn Lane . This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2006. The story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2006.