Modern genetic modification, where biologists cause a plant to express a natural protein taken from another plant that wards off pests, is protested by environmental groups and organic farmers. Organic farmers will spray Bt on their plants, while calling them organic food, yet the same food that expresses Bt naturally, like many plants do, is a Frankenfood.

It's the protein expression, they insist. There may be a compromise between the world of science - and not letting poor people die - and activism. If protein expression is the problem, don't code for proteins. Non-coding RNA (ncRNA) still sounds like scary science to environmentalists, but transcripts that do not code for proteins exclude the possibility of producing exogenous protein products.

First world cultural drama solved. Food supplies can go up while cultivated land goes down, and no one has to starve. 

Non-coding RNAs can be classified into two major groups: small non-coding RNA (siRNAs, miRNAs, and piRNAs) with a length of 20-30 nucleotides and long non-coding RNAs with a length of more than 200 nucleotides.

Advances in honing non-coding RNAs to enhance crops and in gRNA-guided genome editing are outlined in a new  National Science Review
study, "Non-coding RNAs as potent tools for crop improvement." published in the Beijing-based journal National Science Review.  

"The functional roles of small RNAs in RNA-directed DNA methylation, viral defense, transposon suppression, abiotic and biotic stress responses, DNA double-strand break repair, and plant development have been demonstrated," write co-authors Renyi Liu, of the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, and Jiankang Zhu of Purdue University, in the article. "These advancements in basic research have greatly increased our knowledge of plant ncRNAs and facilitated the effective design of ncRNA-based strategies for crop improvement. ncRNAs function by repressing the expression of endogenous or exogenous genes at the transcriptional, post-transcriptional, or translational levels in a sequence-specific manner … [and] can be used to specifically control the expression of target genes."

RNA genetic engineering has contributed significantly to two of the major goals of crop enhancement: resistance to pests and pathogens and improved nutritional value.

"RNA interference (RNAi) evolved as a defense mechanism against invading nucleic acid molecules such as those from viruses," the scholars write in the National Science Review.

Discoveries surrounding RNA have transformed it into a powerful tool of genetic engineering and functional genomics aimed at producing better agronomic traits.

RNA silencing-based technology has enjoyed success in improving the nutritional value of crops. By down-regulating key genes in plant metabolic pathways using RNAi constructs, transgenic crops may accumulate more favorable metabolites or produce less unwanted ingredients. Examples include corn with increased essential amino acids, soybean, canola and cotton with improved fatty acid composition, wheat with increased fiber content, alfalfa and poplar with reduced lignin, and soybean, rice, peanut, and apple with reduced allergens.

"A recent and exciting ncRNA-based technology is the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat (CRISPR)/CRISPR-associated (Cas) technology for gene editing in plants," they point out in the review.

CRISPR/Cas is a bacterial defense strategy against invading DNA such as phages or plasmids.

In this strategy, the CRISPR ncRNA guides a Cas endonuclease to cleave invading homologous DNA. Engineered CRISPR single guide RNAs (sgRNAs) and the Cas9 endonuclease can be expressed in transgenic plants, so that the Cas9 generates double-stranded DNA breaks at target genes that are complementary to the sgRNA sequences.

"Through cellular DNA repair, mutations or corrections of the target genes can be achieved," the scholars state. "This CRISPR/Cas-based gene editing or genome engineering technology is a very powerful tool for plant functional genomics and crop improvement."

RNAi-based technologies have proven to be potent tools for crop improvement.

"As genomic resources for major crops and pests and pathogens are accumulated at a fast pace, additional target genes will be exploited for crop improvement," predict Renyi Liu and Jiankang Zhu. "RNAi-based technologies also have the potential to play a major role in achieving other goals for crop improvement such as increased yield and enhanced resistance to abiotic stresses once the relevant pathways are better understood."