Science & Technology

Blast from the past: how GMOs have become the next big thing

The debate continues as to whether or not genetically modified organisms, particularly in regard to agricultural crops, are healthy to consumers.

GMOs refers to any type of organism in which its genetic sequence has been changed through agricultural practices or genetic engineering.

The science of GMOs can be observed in both plants and animals, and has existed for as long as agriculture has been documented. It dates back to over 12,000 years ago when farmers chose bigger, more desirable crops to reproduce for the purpose of having equal or better yields in future generations. This was the first manifestation of GMOs that would later extend to choosing crops that were more resilient to diseases and pests to ensure better survivability.

Even though agriculture has relied more on nature to take its course rather than implementing genetic engineering to artificially change the genetic makeup of different crops, farmers recognized early on that “hybrid plants” could be produced by breeding different crops through natural means.

In the mid 1800s, the father of genetics, Gregor Mendel, experimented with plant hybridization — breeding different species together — with pea plants and discovered a lot about the nature of genetics. The three laws he developed from his research, referred to as Mendel’s Laws of Heredity, were not greatly appreciated in his time. His work was only truly appreciated later in the 1900s when his Laws of Heredity greatly contributed towards a better understanding of DNA that would ultimately lead to modern practices of genetic modification of organisms.

A three-dimensional model of DNA was published by American biologist James Watson and English physicist Francis Crick based on the research done by chemist Rosalind Franklin, who discovered DNA’s double helix structure. The discovery greatly assisted scientists in understanding the structure of DNA and the location of genes in a DNA sequence.

This information was used to develop techniques such as DNA splicing, a genetic modification technique where specific DNA sequences were cut from one organism and put into another. DNA splicing has been used to create products such as insulin.

The first efforts to commercialize genetically modified products were made in the 1970s by a company named Monsanto, an agricultural company that developed herbicides at first, but later on develop seeds of pest- and disease-resistant plants.

After the discovery of DNA splicing by biochemists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen in 1972, an era of biotechnology erupted, as the possibilities for new organisms of different DNA combinations opened many opportunities for both the medical and food industry. It was during this time period where the health concerns of GMOs arose.

Two decades later, in 1992, the Food and Drug Administration declared that GMOs were not a safety hazard.

The first commercially released GMO products were tomatoes known as Flavr Savr tomatoes in 1992, sold by a company named Calgene, which was later bought by Monsanto. These tomatoes were engineered in a way that delayed the softening of tomatoes after becoming ripe. This extended period of ripeness allowed more processing time, which was used to develop products such as tomato paste.

Another example of the benefits of GMOs is the Hawaiian papaya fruit, whose population was reduced by 40 percent due to a virus known as the Ringspot virus. Through genetic modification, Dr. Dennis Gonsalves developed a strain of the fruit that was resistant to the virus. The discovery ultimately saved the Hawaiian papaya industry and the fruit from possible extinction.

The benefits of GMOs are evident for both the consumer and producer, as the collection of attributable traits into a single organism can save on production costs while producing higher yield, tastier crops and crops that have higher survivability against pests and diseases.

With the increase in invasive species due to poor regulation in global transportation, this genetic technology also offers ways to give plants more protection against threats of extinction.

These benefits have skyrocketed the use of GMOs as over 160 hectares of genetically modified crops were grown in 2011, making over 10 percent of the world’s total crop growth. While the concern for safety of genetically modified products is still relevant, thorough and intensive evaluations are given to existing and proposed products to ensure the prevention of possible health risks to consumers.

Most genetically modified foods sold nationally and internationally have passed safety tests. However, it is important to understand that GMOs will always pose unpredictable risks to both people and the environment as the effects of new DNA recombinants is unpredictable.

December 3, 2018

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Hugh Shin

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