By Mike Pomranz
Updated May 11, 2015
Credit: © Brent Hofacker / Alamy

The debate over genetically modified food seems to be raging louder than ever. Many staunch food advocates are aggressively pushing for everything GMO to be eliminated from our diets; meanwhile, scientists wonder why if they make a smartphone they reap praise, but when they tinker with your tomatoes, it’s the end of the world.

The idea of GMOs may be more natural than you think, according to a new study. Scientists claim to have discovered evidence that the common sweet potato is actually “naturally transgenic.”

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and conducted in Peru, found that domestic sweet potatoes (the kind we eat) contained bits of DNA transferred into its genome by bacteria. “One stretch of DNA—the code of which matched with a species of bacteria called Agrobacterium—was present in all 291 cultivated sweet potato varieties studied, but not in closely related wild plants,” according to Business Insider. “That makes the scientists think the bit of DNA contains a gene that gave the sweet potato a trait humans found desirable and selected for when domesticating the plant.”

The findings are particularly interesting because Agrobacterium is used in modern plant genetic engineering—with the assumption being that if this process can happen naturally in the wild, modern genetic engineering is simply a way of speeding up a natural process. “Anyone who's familiar with genetic engineering wouldn't be surprised that the [bacteria] Agrobacterium inserted some DNA into some crops,” Greg Jaffe, the GMO expert at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, told NPR.

Obviously, a quote to NPR from a GMO expert probably isn’t going to change the position of those in the anti-GMO camp. But drawing parallels between modern GMOs and natural processes definitely provides an interesting talking point for those who support the science.