When you Google search the phrase ‘GMO’, you’re met with a a plethora of images showing needles injecting unnamed chemicals into the skin of fruits, protest images and other mock-ups involving Frankenstein’s monster-like vegetables. The phrase ‘Franken-food’ in big red letters on a black background is thrown at you. While these images are (quite frankly) hilarious, they are also inherently damaging and cause hindrance to important genetic research. Unfortunately, as with most popular science topics highlighted in the media, there’s a lot of ambiguity surrounding GMOs and many people have no idea what they actually are.

First page of Google image search results for 'GMO', accessed 22:46, 07/08/2015
First page of Google image search results for ‘GMO’, accessed 22:46, 07/08/2015

Time to get GMOver it!

Alright, lets examine the basics. Genetically Modified Organisms are, by definition, “any organism – whether they be plant, animal, fungi or anything else – whose genetic material has been changed somehow using a genetic engineering technique”. In less mumbo-jumbo, if you change the genetic make-up in a way that it wouldn’t likely to be changed in nature through natural reproduction, you have a GMO. One of the main reasons that there’s so many misconceptions surrounds GMOs is that the definition is being updated as we advance our technology and research. For the minute, let’s just take classical broad definition, which includes the process of selective breeding as genetic engineering. All of this means that fundamentally, anything that us humans breed for certain characteristics are GMOs.

And that includes the family dog.

Dogs are one of the classic overlooked GMOs. Pretty much every domesticated dog is of the species Canis lupus familiaris, a subspecies of Canis lupus, or the Gray Wolf. Your pet puppy is so closely related to the big bad wolf that they can still breed together, and taxonomists (those scientists that name and classify organisms into species) consider them the same species.

Mexican Gray Wolf

According to genetic evidence and evolutionary biology, the first domesticated dogs came into existence in the Agricultural revolution. Over centuries of human civilization, Gray Wolves have been selectively bred by farmers and families to be smaller, or better hunters, or to pull sleds, or to be faster. Fast forward roughly 10,000 years to the modern day and we have lots of different kind of pups that look quite different like the photo above.

What about lab-grown GMOs?

These are the GMOs that actually have some foreign genetic material- DNA or RNA -introduced into their genome somewhere. Even if we look at GMOs as organisms that are modified in the lab and through viral vectors etc, the facts are still far from what you see on most click-bait sites. One of the most important GM crops out there is a grain called Sorghum.

Sorghum
Sorghum crop

Crops sometimes do this funny thing called lodging when wind hits them. It basically means that the plants ‘lie down’ and get significantly more difficult to harvest. Researchers using genetic engineering techniques have managed to significantly reduce the occurrence of this in grasses such as Sorghum – sometimes they change how strong the roots are, or introduce genes for dwarfism in the stem so that the crop uses most of its energy in producing the valuable top part of the plant rather than the stem and so it can avoid the wind a bit better. Currently researchers are looking at how these GM grasses could make a significant impact in Africa, helping to improve farming. Several programs involving GM plants with stronger, branching roots are being piloted to help reduce desertification in African regions also.

Probably one of the most important GM crops is the GM potato. Potatoes are somewhat a staple crop, forming the basis of diet and eaten in regular high quantities. Even though in October of 2009 the Irish government stated “We will declare the Republic of Ireland a GM-Free Zone, free from the cultivation of all GM plants”, a 4 year trial of a GM potato crop (Solanum tuberosum) created by the agricultural service Teagasc was given the greenlight back in 2012 by the Environmental Protection Agency for testing the impact of less fungicide. The results showed that they had essentially created a blight-resistant potato; the fungus Phytophora infestans, which was the catalyst for the Irish Famine, could no longer infect and destroy this crop. A potato blight like that suffered by Irish families in the past is now quite unlikely to take hold of any country for the foreseeable future.

There’s even GM variants of rice which have been modified to help reduce the incidence of blindness from vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in the Third World through the Golden Rice project. Researchers basically modified a biochemical pathway in the edible part of rice so that the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene is biosynthesized – giving rise to the ‘golden’ variety of the rice species Oryza sativa.

So its all good, and GMOs have no negatives, right?

As with pretty much everything (except Mobius strips), there’s two sides to the story. GMOs, particularly those used in farming, have a certain amount of ‘leakiness’ which can be a huge problem for the farmer’s that they are trying to help. Crops are considered leaky if they can transfer their genes to wild relatives through vectors such as pollination. Crops like rapeseed which can be grown for bio-fuel in some parts of the world can actually transfer genes for increased stability and herbicide resistance to weeds and other undesirable plants. So when you try to make your own plants bigger of stronger, you could accidentally create GM super-weeds on the side. This isn’t exactly something to cause widespread panic amongst those living in urban centres, however the possibility of gene transfer is incredibly dangerous.

Flavr Savr was the first commercially grown genetically engineered crop approved for human consumption. It was a type of GM tomato produced by the Californian company Calgene and gave the tomato a longer shelf-life by slowing down the ripening process. Calgene used what is called an antisense polygalacturonase (pg) construct to alter the tomatoes skin properties and keep them looking nice and pretty for a bit longer. Sounds harmless right?

The issue was that the company used a gene which confers antibiotic resistance to its host, in conjunction with the antisense pg, to select for successfully modified (GM) cells. The gene they used came from Escherichia Coli (E. coli), a bacteria known for causing food poisoning in warm blooded organisms. Now while the FDA claimed that there was no need to even label these tomatoes as GM as there were ‘no apparent health risks or change in nutritional values’, if the antibiotic resistance gene from E. coli had been acquired through horizontal gene transfer in the human GI tract from Flavr Savr by another bacterium, we would’ve had a new superbug on our hands. Who knows what damage this accidentally created resistant bacterium could’ve done? A process similar to that which is happening between related crops in the wild could have generated a microbe, resistant to several antibiotics, in the digestive systems of those eating the GM tomatoes.

Verdict

In reality, GMOs are the way of the future. Just like nuclear power, they can be dangerous and go out of control if not handled with proper care. The uncomfortable truth is that without GMOs, Earth’s rising population is completely unsustainable. As a college professor of mine once put it, “if everyone was eating a Western diet, we would need two planet Earths – one for us to live on, and one dedicated to land for growing food”.

We need solutions to the hunger crisis. As it stands, more efficient/herbicide resistant/higher yielding GM crops seem to be the future. We need solutions to leaky crops and solutions to provide food for the millions of people living below the bread-line around the world. But before we can attain any of these goals, we need elegant policies to be created and unhindered research to be carried out, laying the foundation for future farming.

Image sources;

Featured Image; “Cherry tomatoes” by Pluma – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cherry_tomatoes.jpg#/media/File:Cherry_tomatoes.jpg

Mexican Gray Wolf; “Mexican Wolf 2 yfb-edit 2” by Jim Clark/U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Innotata using CommonsHelper. (Original text: [1]. Edit to reduce noise, improve contrast and adjust levels by Yummifruitbat.). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mexican_Wolf_2_yfb-edit_2.jpg#/media/File:Mexican_Wolf_2_yfb-edit_2.jpg

Sorghum; “Sorghum” by Larry Rana, USDA – United States Department of Agriculture, Image Number: 94cs2601, CD0461-69 – http://www.usda.gov/oc/photo/94cs2601.htm. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sorghum.jpg#/media/File:Sorghum.jpg

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