Bad word or brilliant science? The debate field regarding “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs) is littered with polarizing mines and pitfalls. People can often be found standing on one edge or the other, screaming rude expletives at one another. It’s 2016, and biotechnology has become a large part of our lives, whether we care for it or not. Whichever side of the field you find yourself on, GMOs are in your past, present, and future- and it’s time we took a thoughtful look at what they really are (without any of the metaphorical cussing).
Defining a GMO
A GMO is defined as any organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. A more narrowly defined GMO is that of a “transgenic organism,” which refers to organisms whose genetic makeup has been altered by adding new genetic material from an unrelated organism. Transgenic organisms differ from general GMOs in that a GMO does not necessarily have additional foreign genetic material. It’s a bit like a square being a rectangle but a rectangle not being a square. A transgenic organism is a GMO, but a GMO is not necessarily a transgenic organism.
The precursor to the biotechnology of today is the process of selective breeding. Plants and animals have been domesticated by humans since 12,000 BC, and have ever since been selectively bred for specific traits that they’ve shown. In that sense, your Labrador or your neighbor’s Golden Retriever are both GMOs- and, for that matter, so are your aunt’s backyard chickens. They all have been genetically modified over time to have the physical, mental, and emotional traits that they show today by careful selection on the part of breeders.
Speeding Up The Process
Rather than spend decades developing strains of new plants or animals through selective breeding, biotechnology allows scientists to directly alter the genes of various organisms. This also means they are able to introduce new genes in order to create the aforementioned transgenic organisms. In 1973 Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen were the first to bring about a biotechnological GMO in the form of bacteria. 1973 also marks the first genetically modified animal, Rudolf Jaenisch having then successfully introduced foreign DNA into the embryo of a mouse. In 1983 Michael W. Bevan, Richard B, Flavell, and Mary-Dell Chilton produced the first genetically modified plant. Since then the world has seen an explosion of GMOs, especially in the medical and agricultural industries.
Why Mess with Nature?
GMOs are used primarily for medical research, production of pharmaceuticals, agriculture, entertainment, and conservation. They’re all around us, even if you don’t realize it, and even if you avoid that GMO label like the plague. The “blue rose” developed by Suntory and Florigene in 2004 is a rose with added genes that give it a lush lavender hue and which is sold in the United States, Japan, and Canada. GloFish are zebrafish with fluorescent red, green, and orange colors developed in 2003 as a GMO widely available in pet stores. Malaria-resistant mosquitoes were produced in 2010 in order to combat the spread of dengue fever and the Zika virus. And, to top it off, certain crops are almost exclusively grown with GMOs. By 2010, 10% of the world’s crops were planted with GMOs, and by 2014 the United States had 94% of the planted area of soybeans, 96% of cotton, and 93% of corn made from genetically modified varieties.
Terrifying or Terrific
But it’s controversial. Biotechnology may be all around us, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t fighting against it. The company Montesano, in particular, has been contorted into a corporate villain in the public’s eye due to its various activities regarding GMOs. Typically the controversy stems from genetically modified food, although there was a significant lash-back in response to the introduction of the GloFish pet at the beginning. Usually the fight revolves around the regulations that are set up in order to make sure the GMOs hitting the market are actually safe for consumption, and how it affects the current ecological state of things. Regardless, the scientific consensus is that “currently available food derived from GM crops poses no greater risk to human health than conventional food, but that each GM food needs to be tested on a case-by-case basis before introduction.” Given the room for error during the process of creating a GMO, it’s not surprising that all products must be tested first- but it may be even more surprising to some that the foods currently available are perhaps not quite as insidious as they seem.
Into the Future
It is highly unlikely GMOs are going to go away anytime soon, despite the best efforts of certain protest groups. For the most part, genetically modified organisms are designed to help mankind, not invade it, and even to conserve the earth as it is now, as in the case of the preservation of papaya trees in Hawaii. That doesn’t discount mistakes on the part of greedy corporate entities, nor does it discount the fact that, yes, indeed, creating a GMO is a bit like playing god and interfering with the “natural” state of things. However, we have endured eras of radical, and controversial, technological innovation in the past and have come out the other end with a shred of dignity- it is likely that, by the time we have uncovered the next great science beyond biotechnology, we will come out again with the same.