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Scientists propose using genetic modification to make weeds more colorful — here's why

"Potential editing targets for improving automated recognition of weeds in agriculture."

"Potential editing targets for improving automated recognition of weeds in agriculture."

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Scientists are making plans for a future in which our food is nearly indistinguishable from weeds.

Weeds are gaining traction as the future of food. Weed-killing robots are already tilling gardens and fields, but there's a problem: The machines may not be able to sort the proverbial wheat from the chaff.

Enter researchers from the University of Copenhagen, who detailed that genetically engineering colorful weeds when selecting weeds for food sources could be key to threading this needle, the Guardian reported. Their study, published in Trends in Plant Science, said other modifications may also help solve the issue.

"Genes associated with the biosynthesis of anthocyanin and carotenoid and with leaf and seed morphology are potential editing targets for improving automated recognition of weeds in agriculture," the authors wrote.

Anthocyanins and carotenoids are pigments that give blueberries and carrots, among other produce, their rich colors.

"Automated recognition of weeds in agriculture" is code for killer robots, which eliminate the need for farmers to use toxic — even "highly lethal" — herbicides.

"It can be modifications of hairs, leaf shape, light emitted at wavelength we cannot see. Anything could work on a large scale," lead author Michael Palmgren, a plant scientist, told the Guardian. "The challenge of distinguishing a weed from a crop becomes imminent when we start breeding weeds."

Already, plants around the world are being modified to withstand extreme heat and drought, among other climate conditions and weather events being driven by the rapid warming of the planet. These changing circumstances are caused by human-produced pollution, largely from agriculture and the burning of dirty energy sources such as gas, oil, and coal.

That means corn and rice — two of the world's most important crops — have to survive high winds and saltwater intrusion, for example.

In Europe, fat hen is a nuisance, outcompeting crops for valuable resources, as Palmgren explained to the Guardian. He said transforming it from wild and weedy could make it a sustainable food source.

"Many wild plants are more tolerant to extreme weather and other climate-related impacts than current crop plants, so breeding them could help prevent food shortages as the climate breaks down," the outlet noted.

But the new crops would look like their weed relatives. If they have distinct differences in appearances, however, robot weeders will be able to easily cull the less colorful undesirables. This could lead to herbicide-free food.

"Distinguishing these new crops from their less productive and closely related wild plants could present tremendous challenges for weed control," the researchers stated, per the Guardian. "Utilising gene editing to enhance their visual recognition by weeding robots could effectively address this issue."

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