A good textbook on GMO

A good textbook on GMO

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I am interested in learning about GMO. The topic is so wrapped in controversy, that it's hard to find a good book that introduces the basic concepts involved. I went through various university websites, but couldn't find any lecture notes on the topic. I don't know, is it too broad a topic? Is there even a book called Introduction to GMO? Maybe that's the problem. I am interested in a book that tells you about how gene manipulation is done. How do biology students get introduced to this concept? I hope the question is not too general.

I too had difficulty finding any textbooks or notes that focused solely on genetic engineering. However, after some rather intense looking, I did come across several textbooks that may be helpful. I wasn't sure how basic of a text you were looking for but I'm hoping college level is okay because that is all I have been able to find.

The first book was An Introduction to Genetic Engineering by Dr. Desmond S.T. Nicholl.

Another was Principals of Gene Manipulation and Genomics by Sandy B. Primrose.

If you need a more basic biology text for reference, I would recommend Miller & Levine Biology by Prentice Hall (Pearson Prentice Hall). Also, you could do a quick-study on genetics on Khan Academy - Crash Course: Biology and Ecology.

I hope this information was helpful for you!

Before going into the trouble of reading a textbook on GMOs, ask yourself if you truly understand what the "controversy" is all about? I'll restrain the following comment to GMO crops (as I strongly feel it is in that area that the hysteria whipped up by a public that is poorly educated in science harms society the most).

The public perception often seems to be fall somewhere in between these two extremes: "crazy scientists insert genes from jellyfish into [crop], making a jelly-[crop]-fish… which is just weird/wrong and must therefore be opposed" or "evil big corporation inserts bad genes into plants, which can then escape into the wild, transmit their bad genes into all other plants, and unleash… "… err… zombie plants?

However, I would suggest that a lot of people are blissfully unaware that MOST of our cash crops have been heavily genetically modified, through millenia of domestication, hybridisation and selection.

For example, durum wheat (commonly used in making semolina and pasta) is an artificial wheat crop, created sometime around 9000 years ago by farmers who crossed two different species of grass crops and selected for a hybrid polyploid plant that had favourable characteristics.

The modern maize plant is another artificial organism created many millenia ago by mesoamericans through hybridization and artifical selection, two of the traditional genetic modification tools available to early farmers.

The apple is a hybrid plant created through crossing of two different species of plants… again done at the dawn of civilization.

I suspect most people who are vehemently opposed to GMO technology are ignorant of the history of farming, let alone the science behind GMO.


Anyway, to answer your question, the "concepts" behind gene manipulation are very basic molecular biology techniques, applied in this context at improving the biochemistry of the organism. Therefore, a good place to start would be a basic textbook such as "Molecular Biology of the Cell" by Alberts or something akin. But a basic botanical textbook on crops would be just as beneficial, in my humble opinion.

Gene Targeting

Although classical methods of studying the function of genes began with a given phenotype and determined the genetic basis of that phenotype, modern techniques allow researchers to start at the DNA sequence level and ask: “What does this gene or DNA element do?” This technique, called reverse genetics, has resulted in reversing the classic genetic methodology. This method would be similar to damaging a body part to determine its function. An insect that loses a wing cannot fly, which means that the function of the wing is flight. The classical genetic method would compare insects that cannot fly with insects that can fly, and observe that the non-flying insects have lost wings. Similarly, mutating or deleting genes provides researchers with clues about gene function. The methods used to disable gene function are collectively called gene targeting. Gene targeting is the use of recombinant DNA vectors to alter the expression of a particular gene, either by introducing mutations in a gene, or by eliminating the expression of a certain gene by deleting a part or all of the gene sequence from the genome of an organism.

GMO Sapiens

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) including plants and the foods made from them, are a hot topic of debate today, but soon related technology could go much further and literally change what it means to be human. Scientists are on the verge of being able to create people who are GMOs.

Should they do it? Could we become a healthier and 'better' species or might eugenics go viral leading to a real, new world of genetic dystopia? GMO Sapiens tackles such questions by taking a fresh look at the cutting-edge biotech discoveries that have made genetically modified people possible.

Bioengineering, genomics, synthetic biology, and stem cells are changing sci-fi into reality before our eyes. This book will capture your imagination with its clear, approachable writing style. It will draw you into the fascinating discussion of the life-changing science of human genetic modification.

PBS Nightly News — 2015's biggest breakthrough could deliver designer babies

TEDx Talks — What if my neighbor's kid was genetically modified? | Paul Knoepfler

  • An Introduction to Playing God
  • The Birth and Explosive Growth of GMOs
  • Human Cloning
  • Build-a-Baby Better via Genetics
  • DIY Guide to Creating GMO Sapiens
  • Eugenics and Transhumanism
  • Cultural Views on Human Genetic Modification
  • GMO Sapiens Today and Tomorrow
Chapter 1: An Introduction to Playing God
  • Genetically modified (GM) human embryos
  • You're only human … but your kids could be more
  • On the menu: IVF meets GMO
  • Cutting edge technology: CRISPR-Cas9
  • Your better baby
  • GMO genesis
  • The stem cell and cloning connections
  • References
Chapter 2: The Birth and Explosive Growth of GMOs
  • GM plants sprout
  • Where did GMOs come from?
  • The race for GM crops
  • Democratizing creation
  • GM pets and novelties
  • GM mosquitoes as good “weapons” to fight disease
  • Defining human genetic modification
  • Gene therapy
  • References
Chapter 3: Human Cloning
  • A student and the first clone
  • Cloning culture
  • The birth of cloning
  • The two kinds of cloning
  • Phony cloning
  • Cloning myths
  • The politics of cloning
  • De-extinction: resurrecting the extinct
  • Cloning meets GMOs?
  • Cloners and friends
  • Who will be the first human clones?
  • References
Chapter 4: Messing with Mother Nature: The First GMO Sapiens
  • The First GMO Sapiens
  • The birth of IVF and a devilish dilemma
  • The “cowboys of medicine” make first GM babies
  • Would it be legal to make a GMO sapiens?
  • Monkeying around with primate eggs and genomes
  • The future of three-person IVF
  • References
Chapter 5: Build-a-Baby Better via Genetics
  • The genesis of commercial human genetic testing
  • Genetics dating and mating service: I prefer a child with …
  • Changing the genetic equation via designer babies?
  • Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD)
  • CRISPR versus PGD
  • Sex selection
  • Savior siblings
  • Human GMO economics
  • OvaScience
  • Mitogenome therapeutics
  • Genetics and human choices
  • Genetic tourism
  • Are designer babies the next step on the GM timeline?
  • References
Chapter 6: DIY Guide to Creating GMO Sapiens

How would one go about creating a GMO sapiens?

Would it be difficult? What steps would be involved? What level of understanding would be needed?

Could you do it DIY-style, maybe even in your garage with some equipment purchased on eBay?

It would be a challenge, but with say a hundred thousand dollars, basic cell and molecular biology laboratory equipment, and a partnership with a fertility clinic, it would be doable. This chapter is not intended to enable people to literally try to make a GMO sapiens, but rather to illustrate that the technology already exists and that it could be attempted by any of the hundreds of laboratories (probably not garages) around the world. Whether for the correction of genetic diseases or for the creation of designer babies for enhancement, the steps involved to give it a try are fairly straightforward even if doing it in a responsible manner could be far more difficult or even impossible.

Chapter 7: Eugenics and Transhumanism
  • Eugenics takes root in California
  • “Better babies” through eugenics
  • IVF and eugenics
  • What is a “better” or “perfect” person?
  • Should we try to make “better babies” via genetic modification?
  • Transhumanism: Getting from point ACGT to H+
  • George Church, genetics pioneer and transhumanist
  • Forced genetic change: gene drive, and weapons
  • References
Chapter 8: Cultural Views on Human Genetic Modification
  • Public perceptions of human modification
  • American views on creating GM humans
  • Global views on human genetic modification
  • Frankenstein revisited
  • The Brothers Huxley
  • DNA Dreams and reality
  • Orphan Black
  • An artist's view of human cloning
  • Genetic discrimination or celebrity
  • Gender issues in human modification
  • Letting your GMO imagination run wild
  • How will culture view real GMO sapiens?
  • References
Chapter 9: GMO Sapiens Today and Tomorrow
  • Creation of the first gene-edited human embryos
  • “Don't edit the human germline”
  • “Prudent path forward”
  • ABCD plan
  • Stanford Law meeting on human genetic modification
  • George Church on human genetic modification
  • Oxford ethicists: don't worry, just do it!
  • The human genome as ever-changing mashup?
  • The future of human genetic modification
  • References

"What I find troubling, exciting but scary, is that I find myself agreeing with an undertone, I do not support human germline genetic modification but with all the new information and perspectives available to me I have found myself questioning my own views and will be watching any developments with a fascinated interest I would rather not admit to."

"Knoepfler provides useful and accessible summaries of the public debates that surrounded the introduction of GMO foods, IVF, attempts at human cloning, and our current fascination with mitochondrial replacement. You should read both this book and Knoepfler's blog. If you are not a blog person, I recommend reading this book as a good introduction both to the subject matter and to the methodology of a science blogger."

"It's a wonderfully well-written book that anyone can read, even someone like me who doesn't have a science background. He does a good job of leading the reader through the development of these technologies to the portrayal of these concepts in literature to movies."

"Knoepfler's GMO Sapiens is a down-to-earth introduction to the human use of new genetic technologies. An easy and enjoyable read, the book is targeted to an audience that has a general interest in, but perhaps a minimal understanding of science. Knoepfler cautiously guides his reader through the emerging technologies that will allow humans to more easily alter our genetic codes."

Knoepfler received a BA in English Literature from Reed College in 1989 and a PhD in Molecular Pathology from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine in 1998 as a Lucille P Markey Fellow. In 2013, Knoepfler was named one of the 50 most influential people in the stem cell field.

Knoepfler's research is focused on enhancing the safety of stem cell treatments, including that of induced pluripotent stem cells, and developing novel therapies to target cancers, particularly brain tumors. His lab studies the Myc oncogene and other factors that regulate stem and cancer cell chromatin including histone variant H3.3.

Knoepfler did his postdoctoral studies at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in the laboratory of Bob Eisenman, studying Myc regulation of chromatin in stem cells and cancers of the nervous system. During his postdoctoral studies, Knoepfler received a fellowship from the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research, and the Howard Temin Award from the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

Knoepfler joined UC Davis in 2006 as an Assistant Professor, shortly after the formation of the California stem cell agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). His decision to move was influenced at least in part by the promise of CIRM to vitalize stem cell research in California. He received a 2 million New Faculty Award from CIRM in 2008. More recently, he received the GPI national stem cell advocacy award in 2013.

Knoepfler has also received support from the March of Dimes via the Basil O'Connor Starter Scholar Research Award and from the National Brain Tumor Society. Knoepfler was more recently awarded grants from the St. Baldrick's Foundation to support work studying how Myc causes childhood brain cancers and potential ways to develop new treatments.

In a TEDx Vienna talk titled "What if my neighbor's kid was genetically modified?" he addresses his concerns on the use of CRISPR in humans. In December 2015, Knoepfler was interviewed on the PBS Nightly News hour along with Jennifer Doudna, by Gwen Ifil. In 2016, he was a panelist on Episode 12 of the TV show Bill Nye Saves the World to discuss CRISPR and designer babies. In 2017, he was the subject of a feature article in Science Magazine for his advocacy and educational outreach work.

Renewable and Nonrenewable Resources

A natural resource is something supplied by nature that helps support life. When you think ofnatural resources, you may think of minerals and fossil fuels. However, ecosystems and the services they provide are also natural resources. Biodiversity is a natural resource as well.

Renewable Resources

Renewable resources can be replenished by natural processes as quickly as humans use them. Examples include sunlight and wind. They are in no danger of being used up (seeFigure below). Metals and other minerals are renewable too. They are not destroyed when they are used and can be recycled.

Wind is a renewable resource. Wind turbines like this one harness just a tiny fraction of wind energy.

Living things are considered to be renewable. This is because they can reproduce to replace themselves. However, they can be over-used or misused to the point of extinction. To be truly renewable, they must be used sustainably. Sustainable use is the use of resources in a way that meets the needs of the present and also preserves the resources for future generations.

Nonrenewable Resources

Nonrenewable resources are natural resources that exist in fixed amounts and can be used up. Examples include fossil fuels such as petroleum, coal, and natural gas. These fuels formed from the remains of plants over hundreds of millions of years. We are using them up far faster than they could ever be replaced. At current rates of use, petroleum will be used up in just a few decades and coal in less than 300 years. Nuclear power is also considered to be a nonrenewable resource because it uses up uranium, which will sooner or later run out. It also produces harmful wastes that are difficult to dispose of safely.

Gasoline is made from crude oil. The crude oil pumped out of the ground is a black liquid called petroleum, which is a nonrenewable resource.

Coal is another nonrenewable resource.

Turning Trash Into Treasure

Scientists at the Massachusetts of Technology are turning trash into coal, which can readily be used to heat homes and cook food in developing countries. This coal burns cleaner than that from fossil fuels. It also save a tremendous amount of energy.


Generally, this term refers to food crops that have been altered using a variety of molecular biology techniques in order to provide them with either new or enhanced characteristics. Examples of such enhancements of modifications are herbicide tolerance, pesticide resistance, greater nutritional content or increased tolerance of cold temperatures. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can also be referred to as transgenic organisms. Transgenic simply means that the organism’s genes come from more than one source.

The idea of enhancing desired traits in food crops is not new. Upon domestication of many plants, farmers used the process of artificial selection to grow plants with desired qualities. However this method can be time consuming and it is very difficult to introduce new traits into a specific population. In contrast, using genetic engineering, scientists can take the gene that controls the trait from one organism and insert it into another organism that does not have the gene. This creates an organism with the desired characteristic quickly and easily. A common example of genetic engineering is the insertion of Bacillus thuringiensis genes into corn to make Bt corn. Bacillus thuringiensis is a bacterium that naturally produces a protein that is lethal to insect larvae. By transferring the genes that encode this protein into corn, scientists have created a type of corn that produces its own pesticides, making it resistant to insects such as the European corn borer.

Transferring the gene

Taking a gene from one organism and inserting it into another is essentially a process of cutting the gene which codes for the trait of interest from the foreign organism and pasting this gene into the genome of the organism that you want to alter.

Let us use the insertion of B. thuringiensis genes into corn as an example. In order to cut out the gene of interest in the bacteria, its total DNA is isolated. Special enzymes, called restriction endonucleases, act as scissors to cut out the desired gene. These enzymes are sensitive to the DNA sequence and will only cut DNA at specific spots. There are many different enzymes that cut in different places, so the enzyme used depends on the sequence of DNA surrounding the desired gene.

Once the gene is cut out, scientists must make an “expression cassette.” This consists of additional DNA surrounding the gene so that the corn cell knows where the gene of interest begins and ends. The part that tells the corn cell where the gene begins is called the promoter and the end, the terminator. Once the expression cassette has been made, it is inserted into a plasmid. The plasmid is a parasitic circle of DNA present in bacteria. By putting the cassette into a plasmid, millions of copies of it can be made. These copies are then introduced into the host cell and get inserted into the genome. Cells which have successfully incorporated the foreign gene into their genome are then expanded in cell culture and used to generate new plants.

Figure 1. General schematic of GM crop production

The ethics of GM Foods

GM foods have been the subject of much controversy. Advocates feel that GM foods will help provide food to the world’s continually expanding population. Since the number of people on earth keeps increasing (over 6 billion, and expected to double within 50 years), and the amount of land suitable for farming remains constant, more food must be grown in the same amount of space. Genetic engineering can make plants that will give farmers better yields through several different methods.

Crops can be harmed or destroyed by many different factors. Insects, weeds, disease, cold temperatures and drought can all adversely affect plants resulting in lower yields for the farmer. Genetic engineering techniques can be used to introduce genes, creating plants that are resistant or tolerant to these factors. Bt corn is an example of the introduction of a pest resistance gene. Monsanto has created strains of soybeans, corn, canola and cotton that are resistant to the weed-killer Roundup®. The weed-killer can be sprayed over the entire crop, killing all plants except the transgenic crop intended to be grown. Scientists have also taken a gene from a cold-water fish and introduced it into potatoes to protect the seedlings against sudden frost. These methods all create plants that are more likely to survive and be healthy, thereby increasing the production of farmer’s fields.

Genetic modification can also be used to change the properties of the crop, adding nutrients, making them taste better, or reducing the growing time. A good example of adding nutrients to food is the development of “golden” rice. Many countries in the world rely on rice as their primary food source. Unfortunately, rice is missing many essential vitamins and minerals, so people whose diet is based on rice are often malnourished. One of the most severe consequences of this is blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Institute for Plant Sciences genetically engineered rice, making it high in vitamin A. The group hoped to distribute the rice for free to any third world country requesting it.

Golden rice is a controversial subject in its own right. Its development was a breakthrough for biotechnology as it was the first time 3 genes were introduced simultaneously (generally, only one gene is transferred at a time). Mammals make vitamin A from beta-carotene, which is not found in polished white rice. A precursor to beta-carotene (geranyl geranyl diphosphate, or GGPP) is present, but three additional chemical reactions must be carried out to transform GGPP into beta-carotene. The gene transfer was successful, resulting in rice that is high in beta-carotene and is actually yellow coloured. On the surface, this seems like the solution to vitamin A deficiency.

Figure 2. enzymes required for Vitamin A metabolism

Sounds great, right? GM foods can be grown easily, withstanding cold or drought, without spraying for pests or weeds. Not only that, but the food can be made more nutritious. So what’s the problem? Why so much controversy?

Opponents of genetic modification have many criticisms against this new technology. First of all there are multiple environmental concerns. GM foods can cause harm to other organisms unintentionally. For example, a study published in Nature on Bt corn found that the pollen caused high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars, even though the caterpillars don’t eat corn [1]. If the Bt corn pollen is blown onto neighbouring milkweed plants (the caterpillars food source) the caterpillars could eat the pollen and die. The results of this study are under debate, since the experiments were not done in the field, but in a laboratory, and new studies suggest that the original may be flawed. Researchers at the University of Guelph performed a study and found that under natural conditions, Bt corn does not pose a risk to the monarch butterfly [2].

Similarly, if pollen is blown onto neighbouring plants, the plants could crossbreed and the introduced gene could be transferred to non-target plants. This is a concern if a herbicide resistant crop were to breed with a weed and transfer the herbicide resistance gene. This would create a weed that is unharmed by the chemicals used to kill it.

Monsanto has patented their Roundup Ready seeds, and farmers wishing to use them must purchase a license from the company. This can lead to trouble for farmers who don’t use the Monsanto seeds. Perry Schmeiser is a canola farmer in western Canada who has never bought seeds from Monsanto. In 1998 he was sued by Monsanto since they discovered Roundup Ready canola in his field. Schmeiser claims that the seed was blown in from neighbouring fields, but Monsanto believes he obtained it illegally or stole it. Regardless of how it was obtained, Monsanto felt this was patent infringement and took Schmeiser to court in June of 2000. This court battle captured the interest of farmers around the world, because even if they did not intend or even want to have patented seeds in their fields, they could be sued. The judge ruled in favour of Monsanto and stated that it didn’t matter how the seed got into Schmeiser’s field. Whether it was blown in, cross-pollinated by birds, bees or animals, fell off farmer’s trucks or migrated from a neighbour’s field, it is still patent infringement, and the plants were to become the property of Monsanto. All of Schmeiser’s profits from 1998 were awarded to Monsanto since there was a probability of having the genetically altered seeds throughout his fields.

Insect pests may also become resistant to the toxins produced by GM crops like Bt corn. It is now known that some bacteria are becoming antibiotic resistant (so-called “superbugs”) making it difficult to treat diseases such as tuberculosis. Likewise, opponents of GMOs believe that insects could become pesticide resistant making them difficult to control in the future.

Along with environmental concerns, there are also worries about the effects that GM foods can have on humans. There are concerns that introducing a new gene into a food could cause an allergic reaction in some people (for example, if the gene came from a nut). Most scientists believe that other than allergic reactions, GM foods do not pose a threat to human health, however as with all new products, no long-term studies have been performed.

How are genetically modified foods regulated in Canada?

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for the control of GM foods in Canada. The CFIA has strict criteria that must be met before a GM food can be marketed. These include: how the food crop was developed, including the molecular biological data which characterizes the genetic change composition of the novel food compared to non-modified counterpart foods nutritional information for the novel food compared to non-modified counterparts potential for new toxins and potential for causing an allergic reaction. Once the government is satisfied that requirements have been met, the food is approved for consumers. Right now, Canada has no mandatory labeling policy for GM foods, it is strictly on a volunteer basis, however mandatory labeling is required if the introduced gene poses an allergy risk (eg. if the gene introduced came from a nut) or if the food’s nutritional content has changed. A Canadian standard for labeling of biotechnology derived foods is being developed and is expected to be completed in the fall of 2002.

The CFIA has approved 51 “novel foods”, most of which are GM foods, including corn, (types resistant to corn borers and herbicides) canola, (varieties resistant to herbicides) potato (varieties resistant to Colorado potato beetles) tomato (varieties that ripen slowly) squash soybean sugarbeet flax and cottonseed oil.

1. Losey JE, Rayor LS, Carter ME. Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae. Nature 399, 214 (1999).

2. Sears MK, Hellmich RL, Stanley-Horn DE, Oberhauser KS, Pleasants JM, Mattila HR, Siegfried BD, Dively GP. Impact of Bt corn pollen on monarch butterfly populations: A risk assessment. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2001 Oct 998(21):11937-42.

What about animals that eat food made from GMO crops?

More than 95% of animals used for meat and dairy in the United States eat GMO crops. Independent studies show that there is no difference in how GMO and non-GMO foods affect the health and safety of animals. The DNA in the GMO food does not transfer to the animal that eats it. This means that animals that eat GMO food do not turn into GMOs. If it did, an animal would have the DNA of any food it ate, GMO or not. In other words, cows do not become the grass they eat and chickens don’t become the corn they eat.

Similarly, the DNA from GMO animal food does not make it into the meat, eggs, or milk from the animal. Research shows that foods like eggs, dairy products, and meat that come from animals that eat GMO food are equal in nutritional value, safety, and quality to foods made from animals that eat only non-GMO food.

Reasons for Genetic Modifications of Plants and Animals

Genetically modified animals are primarily for research purposes only, where they are used often as model biological systems for drug development. There have been some genetically modified animals developed for other commercial purposes, such as fluorescent fish as pets, and genetically modified mosquitoes to help control disease-carrying mosquitoes. However, these are relatively limited application outside of basic biological research. So far, no genetically modified animals have been approved as a food source. Soon, though, that may change with the AquaAdvantage Salmon that is making its way through the approval process.

With plants, however, the situation is different. While a lot of plants are modified for research, the objective of most crop genetic modification is to make a plant strain that is commercially or socially beneficial. For example, yields can be increased if plants are engineered with improved resistance to a disease-causing pest like the Rainbow Papaya, or the ability to grow in an inhospitable, perhaps colder region. Fruit that stays ripe longer, such as Endless Summer Tomatoes, provides more time for shelf time after harvest for use. Also, traits that enhance the nutritional value, such as Golden Rice designed to be rich in vitamin A, or utility of the fruit, such as non-browning Arctic Apples have also been made.

Essentially, any trait that can be made manifest with the addition or inhibition of a specific gene, can be introduced. Traits that require multiple genes could also be managed, but this requires a more complicated process that has not yet been achieved with commercial crops.

GMO Dangers: Facts You Need to Know

By training, I am a plant biologist. In the early 1990s I was busy making genetically modified plants (often called GMOs for Genetically Modified Organisms) as part of the research that led to my PhD. Into these plants we were putting DNA from various foreign organisms, such as viruses and bacteria.

I wasn’t, at the outset, concerned about the possible effects of GM plants on human health or the environment. One reason for this lack of concern was that I was still a very young scientist, feeling my way in the complex world of biology and of scientific research. Another reason was that we hardly imagined that GMOs like ours would be grown or eaten. So far as I was concerned, all GMOs were for research purposes only.

Gradually, however, it became clear that certain companies thought differently. Some of my older colleagues shared their skepticism with me that commercial interests were running far ahead of scientific knowledge. I listened carefully and I didn’t disagree. Today, over twenty years later, GMO crops, especially soybeans, corn, papaya, canola and cotton, are commercially grown in numerous parts of the world.

Depending on which country you live in, GMOs may be unlabeled and therefore unknowingly abundant in your diet. Processed foods are likely to contain ingredients from GMO crops, such as corn and soy. Most crops, however are still non-GMO, including rice, wheat, barley, oats, tomatoes, grapes, beans, etc. For meat eaters the mode of GMO consumption is different. There are no GMO animals used in farming (although GM salmon has been pending FDA approval since 1993) however, animal feed, especially in factory farms, is likely to be mostly GMO corn and GMO soybeans. In this case, the labeling issue and potential impacts are complicated even further.

I now believe, as a much more experienced scientist, that GMO crops still run far ahead of our understanding of their risks. In broad outline, the reasons I believe so are quite simple. As a biologist I have become much more appreciative of the complexity of biological organisms and their capacity for benefits and harms, and as a scientist I have become much more humble about the capacity of science to do more than scratch the surface in its understanding of the deep complexity and diversity of the natural world. To paraphrase a cliché, I more and more appreciate that as scientists we understand less and less.

The Flawed Processes of GMO Risk Assessment

Some of my concerns with GMOs, however, are “just” practical. I have read numerous GMO risk assessment applications. These are the documents that governments rely on to ‘prove’ their safety. Though these documents are quite long and quite complex, their length is misleading in that they primarily ask trivial questions. Furthermore, the experiments described within them are often very inadequate and sloppily executed. Scientific controls are often missing, procedures and reagents are badly described, and the results are often ambiguous or uninterpretable.

In consequence, the government regulators who examine the data are effectively reliant on the word of the applicants that the research supports whatever the applicant claims. There are other elementary scientific flaws too for example, applications routinely ignore or dismiss obvious red flags such as experiments yielding unexpected outcomes.

The Dangers of GMOs

Aside from grave doubts about the quality and integrity of risk assessments, I also have specific science-based concerns over GMOs. These concerns are mostly particular to specific transgenes and traits.

Many GMO plants are engineered to contain their own insecticides. These GMOs, which include maize, cotton and soybeans, are called Bt plants. Bt plants get their name because they incorporate a transgene that makes a protein-based toxin (sometimes called the Cry toxin) from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. Many Bt crops are “stacked,” meaning they contain a multiplicity of these Cry toxins. Their makers believe each of these Bt toxins is insect-specific and safe. However, there are multiple reasons to doubt both safety and specificity. One concern is that Bacillus thuringiensis is all but indistinguishable from the well known anthrax bacterium (Bacillus anthracis). Another reason is that Bt insecticides share structural similarities with ricin. Ricin is a famously dangerous plant toxin, a tiny amount of which was used to assassinate the Bulgarian writer and defector Georgi Markov in 1978 [ 1 ] . A third reason for concern is that the mode of action of Bt proteins is not understood (Vachon et al 2012) yet, it is axiomatic in science, that effective risk assessment requires a clear understanding of the mechanism of action of any GMO transgene so that appropriate experiments can be devised to affirm or refute safety. All this is doubly troubling because some Cry proteins are toxic towards isolated human cells (Mizuki et al., 1999).

A second concern follows from GMOs being often resistant to herbicides. This resistance is an invitation to farmers to spray large quantities of herbicides, and many do. As research recently showed, commercial soybeans sold today routinely contain quantities of the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) that its maker, Monsanto, once described as “extreme” (Bøhn et al 2014).

Glyphosate has been in the news recently because the World Health Organisation no longer considers it a relatively harmless chemical, but there are other herbicides applied to GMOs which are easily of equal concern. The herbicide Glufosinate (phosphinothricin, made by Bayer) kills plants because it inhibits the plant enzyme glutamine synthetase. This ubiquitous enzyme is found also in fungi, bacteria and animals. Consequently, Glufosinate is toxic to most organisms. Glufosinate, for good measure, is also a neurotoxin of mammals that doesn’t easily break down in the environment (Lantz et al. 2014). Glufosinate is thus a “herbicide” in name only. Even in normal agricultural its use is hazardous.

In GMO plants the situation is worse. Glufosinate is sprayed on the crop but degradation is blocked by the transgene, which chemically modifies it slightly. This makes the plant resistant to the herbicide, but when you eat Bayers’ Glufosinate-resistant GMO maize or canola, even weeks or months later, glufosinate, though slightly modified, is probably still there (Droge et al., 1992). Nevertheless, the implications of all this additional exposure of people were ignored in GMO risk assessments of Glufosinate tolerant GMO crops.

Earn your plant-based nutrition certificate

A yet further reason to be concerned about GMOs is that most of them contain a viral sequence called the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) promoter (or they contain the similar figwort mosaic virus (FMV) promoter). Two years ago, the GMO safety agency of the European Union (EFSA) discovered that both the CaMV promoter and the FMV promoter had wrongly been assumed by them (for almost 20 years) not to encode any proteins. In fact, the two promoters encode a large part of a small multifunctional viral protein that misdirects all normal gene expression and that also turns off a key plant defence against pathogens. EFSA tried to bury their discovery. Unfortunately for them, we spotted their findings in an obscure scientific journal [ 2 ] . This revelation forced EFSA and other regulators to explain why they had overlooked the probability that consumers were eating an untested viral protein.

This list of significant scientific concerns about GMOs is by no means exhaustive. For example, there are novel GMOs coming on the market, such as those using double stranded RNAs(dsRNAs), that have the potential for even greater risks (Latham and Wilson 2015).

The True Purpose of GMOs

Science is not the only grounds on which GMOs should be judged. The commercial purpose of GMOs is not to feed the world or improve farming. Rather, they exist to gain intellectual property (i.e. patent rights) over seeds and plant breeding and to drive agriculture in directions that benefit agribusiness. This drive is occurring at the expense of farmers, consumers and the natural world. US Farmers, for example, have seen seed costs nearly quadruple and seed choices greatly narrow since the introduction of GMOs [ 3 ] . The fight over them is thus not of narrow importance. Their use affects us all.

Nevertheless, specific scientific concerns are crucial to the debate. I left science in large part because it seemed impossible to do research while also providing the unvarnished public scepticism that I believed the public, as ultimate funder and risk-taker of that science, was entitled to.

Criticism of science and technology remains very difficult. Even though many academics benefit from tenure and a large salary, the sceptical process in much of science is largely lacking. This is why risk assessment of GMOs has been short-circuited and public concerns about them are growing. Until the damaged scientific ethos is rectified, the public is correct to doubt that GMOs should ever have been let out of any lab.

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Personally, I still love a good GMO—particularly Impossible burgers, made with yeast engineered to produce a protein that mimics blood—and so do many of my justice-driven allies. But we’ve learned the hard way that people fighting for a common cause don’t always share their values. We still care about food and farming, but our focus has shifted to social and environmental justice in the food system, rather than advocating for particular technologies.

When it comes to the bigger picture, I prefer to take a more nuanced view of food systems, power dynamics, and legacies of colonialism, and look beyond the outlandish parts of opposition to science and technology to the evidence-based concerns. Sometimes solutions might involve genetic engineering, sometimes not. When it comes to golden rice, questioning its impact and the motives behind it is not “anti-science,” and it’s not up to GMO proponents to decide what’s best.

A good textbook on GMO - Biology

GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Let’s break it down word by word. Genetically refers to genes. Genes are made up of DNA, which is a set of instructions for how cells grow and develop. Second is Modified. This implies that some change or tweak has been made. Lastly, we have the word Organism. When it comes to GMOs, many people only think of crops. Yet an ‘organism’ isn’t just a plant it refers to all living things, including bacteria and fungi.

With that in mind, GMOs are living beings that have had their genetic code changed in some way. While conventional breeding, which has been going on for centuries, involves mixing all of the genes from two different sources, producing a GMO is much more targeted. Rather than crossing two plants out in the field, they insert a gene or two into individual cells in a lab. Yet, as mentioned earlier, GM technology can also be used on microorganisms. For example, bacteria have been genetically modified to produce medicines that can cure diseases or vaccines that prevent them. A commonly used medicine that comes from a genetically modified source is insulin, which is used to treat diabetes, but there are many others.

The process to create a GMO starts very small. A scientist causes a gene to be inserted into the DNA in the nucleus of a single cell. The DNA being used for the modification is so small that it can’t be seen, even under the most powerful microscope. Despite how tiny a cell is, there is a massive amount of DNA all packaged into its one little nucleus. To give some idea of just how much DNA is packed into that small space, if you were to take all the DNA of one single corn cell out of the nucleus and line it up end-to-end, it would be about six feet long! Into this enormous amount of DNA, a very small piece is inserted. A vast majority of the organism’s genetic code remains completely unchanged by the process.

Once this single cell has been modified, the scientist will treat it with naturally occurring plant hormones to stimulate growth and development. This one cell will start to divide (which is the natural growth process for any organism) and the resulting cells begin to take on specialized functions, until they become a whole plant. Because this new plant was ultimately derived from a single cell with the inserted gene, all of the cells in the regenerated plant contain that new gene.

Introduction to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism or microorganism whose genetic material has been altered to contain a segment of DNA from another organism. Modern recombinant DNA technology enables the “stitching together” of pieces of DNA, regardless of the source of the pieces. Since the 1980s, this technology has been used extensively in the lab by researchers for countless purposes: to make copies of genes or proteins, to determine gene function, to study gene expression patterns, and to create models for human disease. One application has been to generate food crops that are modified in a way that is advantageous to either the producer or the consumer. Currently the GM crops on the market have bacterial genes introduced into their genomes that encode for pest or herbicide resistance. In theory, this should cut down on the amount of chemicals a farmer needs to spray, but in practice that goal has not been realized as pests and weeds become resistant to the chemicals being used.

In the US, the most commonly found GM crops are:

* Soy
* Corn
* Cotton
* Canola

Most scientists agree that GM foods are safe. There is concern among scientists that the vocal resistance of certain individuals to GMOs is due, in part, to a lack of understanding of the technology and the prevalence of misinformation. Man has been “genetically modifying” food crops through selective breeding since we moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture over 10,000 years ago. Modern technology speeds up this process. However, that does not mean the technology should be given blanket approval. GM crops have been planted extensively for a little over a decade. While no negative health consequences have been detected (or are anticipated), the relative newness of GM crops requires that we continue to monitor for health impacts. At present, the ecological concerns that stem from the way GM crops are planted are a more pressing concern. In some states, public unease with GMOs has resulted in attempted legislation to require labeling of food products that contain GM ingredients.

CLICK HERE for an informative video presentation on GMO crops

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