Is there an efficient way to tinker with the genes of plants? Being able to do that would make breeding new varieties of crop plants faster and easier, but figuring out exactly how to do it has stumped plant scientists for decades.
Now researchers may have cracked it.
Modifying the genetics of a plant requires getting DNA into its cells. That's fairly easy to do with animal cells, but with plants it's a different matter.
"Plants have not just a cell membrane, but also a cell wall," says Markita Landry, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.
Scientists have tried different ways to get DNA and other important biological molecules through the cell wall – by shooting microscopic gold bullets coated with DNA into the cell using a gene gun or by hiding DNA inside bacteria that can infect plant cells.
Both methods have limitations. Gene guns aren't very efficient, and some plants are hard, if not impossible, to infect with bacteria.
UC Berkeley researchers have found a way to do it using something called carbon nanotubes, long stiff tubes of carbon that are really small. Landry came up with the idea, and the curious thing is she's neither a nanotechnology engineer nor a plant biologist.