Over the past decade, gene splicers have slipped new DNA into bacteria, tomatoes, and even humans. Now they've engineered a slimier form of life: seaweed. A team led by plant geneticist Subhash C. Minocha at the University of New Hampshire has transferred a marker gene into two species of the briny plants. The method, which took two years to perfect, involves using electricity to open holes in the membranes of seaweed cells just big enough for molecules of DNA to slide through.
One plan is to genetically engineer new forms of agar. Extracted from seaweed, it is used in labs for growing bacteria and sells for $ 150 a pound. With new genes, says Minocha, agar could be given properties such as a higher melting point that increase its value. Minocha also plans to insert genes for metal-grabbing proteins into seaweed. The idea is to use the algae to remove toxins such as cadmium and lead from water.