Genetically modified organisms. Just those three words make a lot of people angry, but not me. Why? Because GMOs are NOT INHERENTLY BAD THINGS TO HAVE. The main problem I have with GMOs is how they’re being treated on a political/bureaucratic/business level. The next two Oh My Science posts will be dedicated to GMOs, first concentrating on the raw science of if they’re actually bad for you or not, then looking at the ethical side of how we’ve been treating GMO patents and biotechnology. Modifying organisms by adjusting what DNA is where is not that bad. We share literally thousands of genes with the weirdest of creatures, and we are not any worse off because of it. Making one organism express a gene (i.e. produce a kind of protein) that it normally doesn’t have in its genome can help it in the long run by making it resistant to a disease, or by giving it an enzyme that enables it to eat a certain kind of food it wasn’t able to before. Sometimes it’s modifying a single gene that controls a lot of other genes, forming a cascade of change that may be more drastic or efficient than the original copy. An artificially implanted gene doesn’t produce a protein any different from the protein the gene would produce in its natural host. A gene is a gene.
GMO bread will not make you grow another arm. GMO bread probably is classified as GMO because it produces another protein or two. And those proteins, while they are being digested by you, will be broken down and taken up as amino acids just like any other protein. No arms will come to you. Just saying.
People have been customizing their strains of food for decades. We cross a certain organism with a characteristic we want with another one with a similar characteristic and then breed the lines that have that trait until we get a single line that reproduces with that trait every time. Dog breeding is a great example of this. So is basically every strain, even organic strains, of tomatoes, corn, and a variety of other fruits and vegetables. We genetically modify organisms all the time in a non-direct way. Now that we have the technology to select exactly which genes we want to go into a plant or animal, it’s taking that idea one step further. GMOs are, at their core, about efficiency. Most people’s goal with genetically modified food and other such things is to maximize the benefits of the product; to get the most nutrition, to not have to use pesticides, to be able to get things to grow more quickly or in more environments, and to make things easier on the growing population of hungry people. The vast majority of scientific literature on GMOs says that the foods that have been carefully grown, harvested, and kept separate from non-GMO strains are no worse for you than the non-modified foods. There are two main articles that have been cited to say the contrary: the Seralini affair, and the Pusztai affair. The Seralini affair claimed that RoundUp resistant maize increased tumor growth in rats, but the countless other scientists and food agencies that investigated the report found many holes that couldn’t be ignored. The Seralini case was dismissed by most of the scientific community as bad science, as the type of rat they used in the experiment was prone to tumors to begin with and their statistical and experimental methods were sub-par. The Pusztai affair dealt with mucosal thickening in rats from genetically modified potatoes, and although the thickening may have occurred to a degree, other problems with the experiment rendered it to be not rigorously scientific, either. If most of the research out there is carried out well, carefully conducted and stringently evaluated but
there are two studies that suggest that GMOs have negative effects on the consumer, I still think it needs more research, even if that contrary evidence was shoddily conducted. My main point here is that YOU DO NOT HAVE TO AUTOMATICALLY BE AFRAID OF GMOs. The research now shows us that, if dealt with correctly, GMOs can actually help alleviate a lot of problems we have globally, like malnutrition. The real problem here is how we are dealing with genetically modified organisms on the business and ethical end. Next week, I’ll take a look at how Monsanto and other organizations around the world have chosen to handle GMOs and try to give a fair, reasoned perspective from both sides of the track. Also, if you have any questions or if you’ve heard something interesting about GMOs, please share it with me! I want to be able to address many different thought processes and perspectives. Until next week.
Alyssa Brandt is a senior and lead designer who loves all things brain-related. She likes illustrating and sugary cereals, and will eventually go to graduate school to pursue a PhD in neuroscience.