Scientists have so far created microbes that manufacture pharmaceuticals – grade pharmaceuticals, crops- pharmaceuticals. crops with built-in insecticides, and glow-in-the-dark beagles. While these are all relatively recent scientific breakthroughs, humans have been tinkering with species’ genomes for over 30,000 years. How did the concept of genetically modified organisms, as we know it now, arise from the original method of selective breeding? Innovators, spurred on by some of the world’s most pressing issues, have prepared the road for Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) – a path that leads to an inconceivable array of benefits while also raising significant questions. Here with the answers you need, is TrailBlazHER’s Anvita Tripathi.
In recent years, the concept of “genetically modified organisms,” or GMOs, has gotten a lot of press. Indeed, since late 2012, the number of Google searches for “GMO” has more than tripled. Humans, on the other hand, have been genetically altering species for more than 30,000 years! Needless to say, our forefathers did not have access to scientific laboratories capable of directly modifying DNA, so how did they do it, and how did GMOs become such a hot topic?
Even though our forefathers had no knowledge of genetics, they were nonetheless able to manipulate the DNA of other organisms through a method known as ‘selective breeding’ or ‘artificial selection.’ Charles Darwin used these terms to describe the process of selecting organisms with the most desirable features and mating them with the goal of combining and propagating those traits through the progeny. When this procedure is used repeatedly over generations, it can cause profound genetic alterations in a species. While artificial selection isn’t what we think of when we think of GMOs today, it is the forerunner to modern procedures and the first evidence of our species impacting genetics.
The dog is regarded to be the first organism that humanity selected artificially. Wild wolves in East Asia joined groups of humans as scavengers some 32,000 years ago, and were tamed and selected for docility, resulting in dogs that are closely related to what are today known as ‘Chinese native dogs’. Over millennia, features like size and body shape were artificially selected, transforming the genetics of these tamed wolves to the point where we now have breeds like Chihuahuas that bear little resemblance to wolves! Since then, artificial selection has been applied to a wide range of species, assisting in the development of everything from prize-winning racehorses to muscular beef cattle.
A variety of plants has also been subjected to artificial selection. The earliest evidence may be found in archaeological sites in southwest Asia dating back to 7800 BCE, when scientists discovered domestic wheat types. Artificial selection of maize, on the other hand, has resulted in the most significant change in plant genetics. Corn, or maize, began as a teosinte-like wild grass with tiny ears and few kernels. Teosinte was carefully selected over centuries to have larger ears with more and more kernels, resulting in what we now call corn. Large heads of broccoli and bananas with barely perceptible seeds have all come from a similar method.
Despite artificial selection being an ancient method, most contemporary discussions about GMOs refer to a far more modern process of altering organism genetics.
In 1973, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen collaborated to create the first successful genetically edited (GE) organism, which was a huge step forward in GMO technology. The two scientists devised a way for cutting a gene from one organism and pasting it into another with extreme precision. They used this strategy to transmit an antibiotic resistance gene from one strain of bacteria to another, giving the recipient antibiotic resistance. Rudolf Jaenisch and Beatrice Mintz used a similar approach in animals one year later, inserting foreign DNA into mouse embryos.
Despite the fact that this new technology opened up a myriad of opportunities, the media and government leaders were quick to express concern about the possible effects on human health and Earth’s ecosystems. By 1974, everyone had agreed to a freeze on GE projects, giving specialists time to speculate the next steps at the Asilomar Conference in 1975. At the symposium, scientists, lawyers, and government officials argued the safety of GE experiments for three days and eventually came to the conclusion that the GE projects should be permitted under specific conditions. For example, the conference established safety and containment guidelines to reduce the hazards associated with each experiment. They also tasked each lab’s main investigator with ensuring proper safety for their researchers and informing the scientific community about significant discoveries. Finally, it was intended that the set criteria would be fluid, impacted by new understanding as the scientific community progressed.
Because of the unprecedented transparency and cooperation at the Asilomar Conference, governments from all around the world backed the decision to continue GE research, ushering in a new era of contemporary genetic modification.
The United States Food and Drug Administration approved the first human drug made by a genetically engineered organism in 1982. Bacteria had been genetically modified to make human insulin, allowing them to purify, package, and administer the hormone to diabetic patients as the medicine called ‘Humulin’.
While genetic engineering has a range of applications, from oil spills to medication, food production is likely the most contentious. In 1987, the first field trials of genetically engineered agricultural crops utilising recombinant DNA technology began. Calgene’s Flavr Savr tomato was the first crop to be a licenced commercial product by the US Department of Agriculture after years of comprehensive health testing. These tomatoes were modified to add a DNA sequence that suppressed a natural tomato protein, improving firmness and extending shelf life.
Scientists have designed crops that are easier for farmers to cultivate, in addition to making meals more aesthetically pleasing. After extensive research, the US Environmental Protection Agency certified the first pesticide-producing crop in 1995. Bt corn was approved later, and the Bt toxin gene is now present in the majority of corn grown internationally. Crops have been modified to resist herbicides, making it easier for farmers to keep weeds out. Roundup Ready or glyphosate-resistant plants are perhaps the most well-known herbicide-resistant crops. The first glyphosate-resistant crop was a soybean cultivar developed by Monsanto in 1996.
Although several species of animals have been genetically modified, the vast majority of this technology is employed for research, and no GE animals have been approved for use in food production by the FDA so far. The first biological product created by a GE animal, ATryn, a drug intended to treat a rare blood clotting condition, was authorised by the US FDA in 2009
There have been numerous debates around GE technology, the most of them have revolved around GE food. While some people object to its use for religious or philosophical reasons, the majority object for environmental or health reasons. For example, a 1999 study found that Bt toxin had detrimental impacts on butterfly populations in laboratory testing, prompting intense opposition to Bt use, but further research in farming areas proved its safety. In a second case, numerous groups linked the economic hardship caused by poor yields of GE cotton crops in India in the late 1990s and early 2000s to an upsurge in farmer suicides. However, it was eventually discovered that suicide rates remained stable following the introduction of GE cotton, and that GE cotton provided economic benefits to most Indian farmers.
During the same time period, public knowledge of GE foods rose, and calls for regulation of GE foods got stronger, resulting in GE food labelling requirements in several countries. GE food is now legally required to be labelled in 64 nations. However, despite the efforts of many advocacy groups, the United States still lacks a countrywide labelling law. These organisations argue that labelling GE foods is necessary for consumer choice and monitoring of unanticipated hazards. Opponents of labelling, on the other hand, argue such a legislation would unnecessarily remove customer demand for present GE crops, resulting in sharp rises in food prices and resource use.
Despite the fact that the controversy over GE food continues, and there are many opponents to the technology, the scientific community has overwhelmingly agreed that eating GE food is no more risky than eating traditionally selected crops. This finding hasn’t stopped firms from profiting off the public’s fear about modified foods. Chipotle was the first restaurant chain to mark menu products as “GMO” in 2013, and in April of this year, the company announced the removal of all GMO-based ingredients, citing their “food with integrity journey” policy. With situations like this, it’s reasonable to predict the argument will rage on for a long time.
GE technology has a plethora of applications under development. Plants with improved disease and drought resistance, animals with increased growth, and pharmaceutical production tactics are among them. GE’s technology is progressing at a rapid pace, too. Researchers recently created a new method called CRISPR that uses bacterial systems to facilitate genetic editing, making the generation of GE species easier. This technology might be used to speed up the development of valuable genetically modified crops, eliminate diseases, or even transform ecosystems. Recent advancements in plant breeding techniques, however, may boost the utility and popularity of the more traditional GMO method of selective breeding. Indeed, traditional breeding methods have recently resulted in the development of novel drought resistant strains of numerous crops.
According to the United Nations, people would need to produce 70% more food than they do now by 2050 to feed the world’s population. To overcome this challenge, new ways will be required, and genetically modifying our food is one such tool. As we consider strategies to improve crop productivity and nutrition, it’s vital to remember where it all began and to acknowledge the pioneers who made our progress possible.
Our forefathers, who bred wolves to make Corgis, could never have imagined that we would one day be able to genetically design crops to resist pests and drought. What does the future hold for GMO technology that we can’t see now?