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Genetic Weed Control

Waterhemp and Palmer amaranth are two aggressive weeds that are threatening our food supply, and increasingly hard to kill with herbicides. Eliminating them with their own genetics is a possible tool in the future.

Pat Tranel is the associate head of the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois. He says they’ve identified genetic signatures that distinguish male waterhemp and Palmer amaranth plants from females. The long-term goal of their project is to control weeds genetically by manipulating the plants’ gender.

"In our scenario what we would do is link a gene that controls maleness to a gene drive approach which would basically spread that gene in the population," says Tranel. "So, the idea is you could release plants that have this dominant male gene, all of their progeny would be male, and then all their progeny would be male and so on. After a few generations basically you would greatly reduce the number of females in the population, and the fewer females there are the fewer seeds that would be produced in the field."

Tranel emphasizes they are in the very early stages and not at the point of releasing genetically modified waterhemp and Palmer amaranth. He also notes this technology won’t be the only weapon in the war against weeds.

"The way I would envision using it is you’d still use your normal weed control strategies at least initially. Spray your herbicide control on 90% of the waterhemp then go in and release some of these genetically engineered individuals," he says. "It’s not going to be a stand-alone tool, it would have to be used in conjunction with other tools and it would be just another mechanism that we could use to reduce the population size of that species."

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