28 Nov

GMOs & NGOs, E-I-E-I-O: The New Realty of Genetically Modified Animals

Online Submission by Segundo Elfamurez

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The US Food and Drug Administration approved the first Genetically Modified Animal for commercial sale last month. The engineered stain of salmon grows about twice as quickly as its natural cousins. Image modified from the New York Times.

A quick stroll to your local organic store or browse on the internet will likely fill you with dread at the prospect of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The very name harkens to the work of Dr. Frankenstein convolving some hideous, ungodly creature that you would chase away with pitch forks rather than pay good money to buy at a grocery store. Therefore, it may alarm you to hear that the very first genetically modified animal: a strain of Salmon to be specific, was approved by the United States’ Food and Drug Administration for sale this month – and can be expected to hit store shelves before the end of the year. This is the first time that science has taken the leap from modifying plants to a living animal, and will likely serve as the benchmark for a whole barnyard of animals in the years to come.

I suspect some of you are already panicking, yet before you start barricading yourself in your homes – it’s worth noting that up to 80% of the processed foods in your home contain some genetically modified ingredients. So perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at precisely what ‘genetic modification’ is.

You’ll recall from our lengthy discussions about evolution that Genetics is the study of genes and inherited traits. Much of this comes down to the study of DNA – which fundamentally underpins much of who we are, how we function, and how we look like. For a given organism, their set of genes – or the ‘genome’ is more or less fixed from the time of their conception. In fact, your body undertakes extraordinary efforts to make sure that your genome doesn’t change and is maintained with absolute precision throughout your life. The only chance genes have to change substantially is when a new organism is being conceived, and even here changes from generation to generation are minor. You can easily see this by comparing yourself to your parents for a moment – though children often think that they are vastly different, on a whole – I’d wager that you’re quite similar. So, if you want to create any meaningful change in an organism naturally, you’ll need to do it over generations requiring years and years of expensive research. Another great problem with this change is that it’s entirely random; there is no way to predict how someone will change. This effectively means that if you want to change an organism naturally, it will take a very long time, and some very patient breeding.

It may therefore surprise you to hear that humans have been doing exactly this for millennia. This story begins around the 8th millennium BC (or about 10,000 years ago) with a tough, husky crop named Teosinte. This was a major source of nourishment in our diet, and it was one of our first farmed crops. That may seem insignificant, but this was one of the first times that humans planted and harvested crops in a coordinated effort rather than just eating what they could find. We’ll leave the social significance of this for the anthropologists to debate – but what happened next with this crop changed the face of biology. Rather than just planting any old teosinte, our early farmers began selecting for the best plants, and planting those for the next generation. Of course, best is a relative term here, but they picked the plants with the fattest seeds, the most seeds, and tallest stalks and planted them. The next year they did this again, and the year after that and so on. Over time, this changed the plant from a barely edible husk to the sumptuous and delicious corn we enjoy today.

The ancestor of modern maize: Teosinte compared to modern sweet corn. It was human agriculture that produced corn from its husky ancestor over millennia. Image Source: The University of California, Berkley

The ancestor of modern maize: Teosinte compared to modern sweet corn. It was human agriculture that produced corn from its husky ancestor over millennia.
Image Source: The University of California, Berkeley.

You may therefore say that humans made corn, or that but for our farmers, the species of corn we see today would not exist. This is what we would call today ‘Genetic Modification’ the only exception is that we did this over 10,000 years in the field, rather than the lab. We’ve done a similar exercise on the Turkey as well. This used to be a puny bird, yet by simply controlling what animals make it into the next generation, in this case, by selective breeding – rather than planting, we have transformed the turkey into the massive, flightless hulk it is today.

Therefore, let us be clear that genetic modification has been fundamental to human agriculture since our very first days – however, as I mentioned, the key difference today is that we make these changes quickly in a lab. What’s done typically is that we add an extra piece of DNA to a plant or animal, occasionally we also cut things out. In this way, rather than wait for nature – we make changes ourselves.

The results of this are remarkable; in the last fifty years we have made organisms that have double the yield of their precursors. This has been particularly successful in wheat and soy. The salmon we began our discussion with, which you’ll recall are the first commercial genetically modified animals, have a modified growth hormone that lets them grow twice as fast.

Despite this success, GMOs are not without risks. Several non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have very rightly pointed out that we don’t know what long term effects changing genes will have. They also very rightly point out that these modified species may out-compete natural species meaning that, for example, one day all salmon in the world will be our engineered super-salmon. If then, some virus or bacteria develops against this fish, we may have a major salmon crises. All of these criticisms are valid – and must be taken into consideration in the future of GMOs – yet it seems to this writer that the hideous stigma around GMOs is wearing a bit thin, and looking increasingly fallacious. It may be time that we take a long hard look at what genetic modification really means, and what this implies for the future of our food supply.