One of the most fascinating things about human beings is our insatiable desire to change the world around us. We obsess about how to improve our comfort levels, increase our production, manipulate resources in new ways, and continue advancing technologically. Our natural desire to play puppet master has even led us to alter the fundamental DNA of various species of animals, plants, and bacteria around the world.
The question is, how in the world are we able to do that? And more importantly, why would we want to?
The Old Origins of GMOs
Genetically modified organisms (commonly known as GMOs) may be a relatively new topic of debate around the world, but in fact, human beings have been artificially manipulating genetic material for thousands of years. Guiding artificial selection (as opposed to natural selection) through breeding techniques, for everything from flowers to horses, is not exactly a new idea. Think about the domestication of dogs and cats, dating back past the Egyptian Empire!
However, there was a certain level of randomness in that sort of selective breeding, and it wasn’t a scientifically reliable process. Our modern developments in gene research, and our increased understanding of genetic function, has given us a much more precise way of manipulating genetics over the past 50 years. Genetic engineering now allows us to directly alter the genetic material of a species.
Most genetically modified organisms simply have their genetic material altered, perhaps with genetic material moved, deleted or mutated slightly. However, transgenic species are those that have DNA from a foreign species inserted into their genetic material, with the intention of acquiring a certain trait, ability, resistance, etc. from that other species. Mice were the first genetically modified animals, which occurred in 1973, and the first GMO plant came a decade later. Since then, dozens of crops and animals have been heavily researched and experimented on, in efforts to make them stronger, faster, more resistant to disease, and have longer lifespans, among other traits.
The Process of Genetic Modification
There are a number of methods for genetic modification, some of which are more delicate and popular than others. Attaching the desired genes to a virus and then infecting a host cell is an effective way of inducing genetic uptake of foreign DNA. When foreign DNA penetrates the cell membrane (as it could on the back of a virus), it can be added to the genes of the host cells. When that host cell then replicates, it will also copy that new DNA, essentially adding the traits from that gene into future cells and offspring.
Directly inserting the DNA into the nucleus is a more delicate process, and involves a very tiny needle – as you can imagine! This has an almost identical effect as the virus approach. Outside DNA can also be forced into a new cell via an electric pulse (in a process called “electroporation”. Outside DNA can even be fired from a “gene gun”, where plasmid DNA is wrapped around a particle of heavy metal and then launched into a nucleus. From there, it can mix with the DNA and be replicated! This may all sound like science fiction, but genetic engineering is very serious business!
Why Does It Matter?
GMOs have provided our society with an incredible opportunity to study the processes of life and learn more about experimental medicine, develop pharmaceuticals, advance our biological knowledge, and feed a larger proportion of the world. By inserting, deleting, or mutating genes in certain species and organisms, we have been able to manipulate growth and development, and in some cases (and this is where the controversy comes in), “play God.”
Let’s take this as an example: with growing rates of diabetes all around the world, the demand for insulin is extremely high. Genetically modified bacteria have been developed that can naturally produce the insulin protein. Without them, insulin would be far more costly, or perhaps impossible, to produce in the desired amount, and people would die.
On the other hand, transgenic organisms making their way onto our dinner plate seems to be crossing a line for many people. Critics argue that we shouldn’t be bulking up pigs with cattle genes, or messing around with the natural development speed of salmon and goats, as we don’t fully understand the long-term effects of consuming that type of genetically modified food.
In terms of agriculture, more than 10% of all the crops grown in the world are genetically modified varieties, and this revolution has largely been led by the United States. GM crops can be more resistant to pests, disease and even drought, while also yielding larger and more consistent amounts of food. In America, the cotton in the clothes you buy and the corn products you consume (corn is in everything…) are almost always genetically modified.
For this reason, GMOs are seen as a potential saving grace for the problems of world hunger and rampant disease, and yet there are still many concerns. Again, the long-term effects of GMOs on health, the strictness of the regulatory process, and the effects that GMOs have on the environment and the natural order are commonly cited by critics of this booming industry. GMOs are banned in much of Europe, but they are gaining ground in developing countries, and the global debate is getting louder.
You may not have known this at the beginning of the article, but GMOs have been a part of our agricultural industry for decades, and genetically modified livestock might not be far behind. There’s no telling what the future will hold, but everyone must make a personal decision about where they stand on the issue. Remember… you are what you eat!