Meet the guitar-playing plant scientist who describes genetic engineering with playing cards and cookbooks

By Justin Cremer

October 19, 2018

Paul Vincelli spends a good deal of his time talking to the public about genetic engineering so it’s not surprising that he’s developed a few tricks for explaining complicated science to the layperson.

Vincelli, an extension professor at the University of Kentucky, describes himself as “a science communicator” and says he’s happy to discuss genetic engineering with anyone, including, or perhaps especially, those who either know very little or who have preconceived notions.

“They’ve heard of GMOs. They’ve heard of genetic engineering. They don’t necessarily know what it means, but they’re interested in finding out more,” he said during a recent visit to Cornell University, where he received a PhD in plant biology in 1988. “I enjoy any person or group that wants to learn more. It’s always satisfying as a science educator to be able to talk about the science to people who are interested.”

Through his interactions with the public, Vincelli has found that a fair amount of the resistance to genetic engineering stems from a distrust of large agricultural corporations.

“What I think is important is for people to understand that genetic technologies like CRISPR gene editing, these are technologies that belong to the world. Even if they’re patented technologies, they belong to the world because those patents eventually expire.”

Another source of the public’s resistance to genetic engineering is the sense that it is “unnatural”, but Vincelli said that consumers are perfectly happy to accept other so-called “unnatural” technologies.

“This is my cell phone,” he said as he dug his smartphone out of his pocket and held it aloft. “This is an absolutely unnatural way to communicate. I can communicate with people all over the world instantly. That is totally unnatural, and yet I know that it’s useful. So ‘unnatural’ has come to mean ‘bad,’ but I don’t think of it that way,” he said.

When the author of this post mentions that the analogy may not be the best one, given that society seems to be recognizing the harm of always being glued to a screen, Vincelli concedes the point — to a degree.

“Maybe it’s a good example in that sense because very few people have given up cell phones. We just probably have to regulate ourselves a little bit. And I think the same is true for genetic engineering.”

If the phone example doesn’t quite work, he’s got another go-to. This one involves cookbooks.

“Imagine you’re writing a cookbook and elsewhere on your computer you’ve got a file about the history of Italian cooking. Well, I find a sentence in that file that would really work well in my cookbook. So I copy that sentence and insert it into the cookbook. If you think of the sentence as a gene, that’s genetic engineering,” he said.

“In that scenario, you’ve just inserted it into a random location, which may ruin your recipe. That means that you might have to insert that sentence 100 times in 100 different locations until it lands in a good place,” he continued. “With CRISPR, you’re able to place that sentence exactly where you want it. The power of CRISPR and genetic engineering is it overcomes the random insertion of the older techniques.”

The precision of CRISPR is something Vincelli has also been known to demonstrate using playing cards:

Although Vincelli may employ a somewhat folksy way of describing genetic engineering, he’s quite serious about its potential. (He’s also quick to point out that he’s had his cookbook analogy peer reviewed by genomics experts and it checks out as “actually very good science,” by the way.)

He said one of the biggest reasons to be excited about CRISPR is that the technique will eventually greatly reduce the need for pesticides.

“I personally don’t worry about the very trace amounts of pesticides that occur in food. But a lot of consumers do, so we want to try and eliminate pesticide use for that reason alone,” he said. “The other reason it’s important to eliminate or reduce pesticide use is that pesticides sprayed onto cropland do end up getting into the outside environment. They’re typically not catastrophic but they can affect the ecology of the environment outside the treated field. So if we can reduce the use of pesticides or eliminate it, we’re reducing the impact of farming on the environment.”

Another way to further minimize agriculture’s footprint is to use genetic engineering to allow plants to produce their own nitrogen fertilizer. Certain plants, like the legume family, already naturally extract nitrogen from the air through a symbiosis with a naturally occurring soil bacterium. Scientists are looking at ways to confer that trait to the cereal crops so that corn, wheat and rice would no longer need nitrogen fertilizer, some of which runs off into nearby streams and rivers.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our cereal plants could be engineered to obtain nitrogen out of the air the way legume plants can?” he asked.

While Vincelli concedes that some of CRISPR’s breakthroughs aren’t likely to happen anytime soon, he thinks the technology will quickly allow farmers to reduce insecticide and fungicide use as well as create breeds that are more tolerant to drought, a trait that will be increasingly important as our planet continues to warm.

These are the messages he focuses on when discussing genetic engineering with the public.

“People do want to hear from scientists who are familiar with the technology,” he said. “When I talk about some of the applications of CRISPR gene editing and some of the applications of genetic engineering that are specifically beneficial to smallholders, people are always impressed by that. They think, ‘Oh, there’s more to it than I thought of’.”

Photo: Paul Vincelli, an extension professor at the University of Kentucky and a self-described “halfway decent rhythm guitarist.”