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    Nature on Fast-Forward continued...

    Faster still -- bypassing many, many generations and seasons -- are the ways that scientists create today's genetic changes, or modifications. They alter the DNA of seeds with radiation or chemicals, then choose which resulting plants to breed.

    Or they can snip a gene (or several) from a plant, virus, or bacteria and plug it in to another to transfer a desired feature. These more precise and targeted adjustments, often referred to as genetic engineering, create what people typically think of when they hear "GMOs." Sometimes scientists move genes that come from the same kind of thing, like from one tomato plant to another. But they can mix different species, too, like a virus and a tomato plant.

    Why Bother?

    Mixing plant species is how we've gotten papayas free of viruses, corn plants that survive drought, soybeans that stand up to weed killer, potatoes that don't bruise, and crops that yield more and cost less. That's good news for our food supply and the business of farming.

    Some GMOs are specially made to be packed with extra vitamins, minerals, and other health benefits. For example, Swiss researchers created a strain of "golden" rice with a lot of beta-carotene, an antioxidant good for your eyes and skin. Soybeans whose fats have been changed so they're more like olive oil can be turned into a heart-healthy replacement for oils with trans fats that's more heat-tolerant and better for cooking. And those bruise-free potatoes are supposed to cut down on cancer-causing chemicals created when spuds become french fries.

    Some biotech companies are doing experiments to make meat better for us, such as boosting the amount of omega-3-fatty acids in it. These essential fats help prevent heart disease and stroke and may protect against cancer and other conditions. They may also help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis. But your body doesn't make them, so you have to get them from food.

    As the population grows, it's going to get harder to feed everyone. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates food production will need to double in some parts of the world by 2050. GMOs are one way to make enough nutritious food available with limited land, water, and other resources.

    But people worry about pollen and seeds from genetically engineered plants spreading beyond the fields where they were planted. Or what could happen if genetically modified animals mate with non-modified or wild ones.

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