GMO’s and the Global Panic Attack

It’s very difficult to filter through the nonsense that the global media presents us with especially when many news outlets are jumping at the same opportunities to create mass reader engagement. Shock tactics are not an uncommon phenomenon but because of a recent discussion I realised how many people don’t actually understand what GMO’s are and have a genuine fear of the unknown.

I want to address the topic of GMO’s by busting some of the harmful myths that surround them, destigmatising their use and to simply explain how they work. To help me fully understand the complexities and nuances I have got the help of two Stellenbosch University students: Chelsea Butler (BSc  Human Life Sciences) and Jonty Grimbeek (BSc Molecular Biology and Biotechnology).

I hope that this is informative, let me know what you think!

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What are GMO’s and why are they produced?

Chelsea:

Genetically modified organisms are organisms whose genome is analyzed and modified by means of recombinant DNA technology.

These organisms, whether it be a unicellular E.coli bacterium with a cell size of 0.5μm by 2μm to a multicellular organism as big as a pea plant or even larger, have a gene or genes of interest within their respective genome. The genome is the entire genetic makeup of the organism, every little gene required for the existence of the organism as a whole is located in specific positions along this genome. With knowledge of the positions of these genes and the organization of the packaging of the genomes of each different organism, microbiologists, geneticists and biochemists are able to ‘tinker’ with the specific genes that produce a ‘protein of interest’. For example, the genome packaging of a prokaryote (bacterium – E.coli) is different and yet similar in some aspects to that of a eukaryote (yeast – S.cerevisiaie). The E.coli contains a plasmid, a circular strand of extra-chromosomal DNA, meaning DNA that is excluded from another set of DNA residing within the bacterium cell that is essential for the cell’s survival. This plasmid allows for the application of recombinant DNA technological methods, due to its simple structure and ability to become competent upon transformation with the gene of interest belonging to another organism. A competent cell, being a cell that holds the ability to takeup new foreign DNA into its own DNA, can be ‘transformed’ by successfully taking up the gene of interest of another organism. A prime example of this, especially referring to the pharmaceutical industry, is the recombination of the human gene that encodes for the human protein ‘insulin’ into the plasmid of the E.coli genome. The ultimate aim of this process is to transform the E.coli as a host into a cell that, containing the human gene encoding insulin production, will yield a line of E.coli organisms with the ability to produce insulin in culture under laboratory conditions. This will allow for the isolation, purification and pharmaceutical production of insulin to be accessible to Diabetic patients in need of insulin treatment. The pharmaceutical industry is one of many industries that applies these techniques, the food and beverage industry is a massive market that utilizes these strategies to produce product on demand. The very wine you drink and the bread that you eat are simple examples of industries that you support that may utilize the production of GMO’s to render you their final product.

Jonty:

A genetically modified organism is an organism whose genome or plasmid DNA contains genetic material from a different organism. GMOs are mainly produced to intensify crop yields by either giving the plant or animal a resistance to a certain disease or making them more appealing to the consumer through either taste, size or appearance. I feel it is also important to mention that biotechnology is used to create vaccines, medication, help to clean up the environment without using caustic chemicals, help to identify criminals and test paternity using DNA fingerprinting and this is just some of the many other applications available to humans using these technologies.

What is the misconception and how did it become so widespread?

Chelsea:

People have become terrified of GMO’s for many reasons, but the main root of these concerns is really one simple concept, the fear of the unknown. Without in depth knowledge into the production and actual existence of these GMO’s, one can become weary of the idea that these are organisms in our daily lives that exist without natural occurrence. As far-fetched as it may seem, this lack of education towards this realm of scientific research may lead individuals to picture the food on their plates as the evil monster of Frankenstein that was mustered up in a mysterious laboratory with malicious intent. The idea that the DNA of the store-bought oranges in your kitchen contain a DNA that was not a creation of nature itself is a terrifying thought indeed. But what a lot of people do not realize is that without these methods of creating these GMO’s, you may not have the luxury of these products at your disposal. Without these GMO’s, perhaps those oranges would have perished subject to lack of an immunity to an agricultural disease that spread across the very farm producing it, because its genetics did not grant the organism the ability to survive in these conditions. The very medication that your doctor prescribes you to heal your body from an illness recently contracted may not exist if it were not for the methods of recombinant DNA technology. Yes, it is morally concerning when your fruits may come without seeds as it is not a natural sight to those who know that the natural form indeed does have seeds. You may look at a seedless grape and think to yourself, ‘this does not seem right’ yet when we enter  grocery store looking for a punnet of grapes the latter will usually choose the punnet that is seedless. The wild banana actually has seeds, and is basically inedible to humans as this organism does not have much fruit flesh to consume. Bananas form a massive part of many diets throughout the world, but they are not indeed the natural form of the bananas experienced in the wild. The bananas we consume, have a flesh that exhibits the ‘scars’ of where the wild-type (genetically original, genetic norm) organism’s as brown marks encircling the center of the flesh. These bananas are actually sterile and are thus, unable to reproduce without the aid of the genetic modifications provided by the GMO industry.

In closing, some GMO’s may in time yield a dangerous outcome warned by many anti-GMO organisations. But what many seem to forget, is that every product, whether it be pharmaceutical or even agricultural, must undergo a successful clinical trial. These clinical trials are very thorough procedures that test the product for lengthy periods of time until they are scientifically approved by the respective health organisations of the country that the products originate in. A very long, scientifically in-depth story short, these GMO’s under the fear of many civilians are always put to the required tests to prove that they will yield no harm to the customers that consume or utilize them.

Jonty:

As a young student finishing off my undergraduate degree in this subject I find the lack of understanding of this technology alarming. I feel that people are afraid that scientists are just trying to make money from GMOs and are not interested in the well-being of people and our environment. As a scientist, I’m certain that I could have studied many other fields to make a lot more money than I will here. We do it out of passion and our own personal interest in the subject. I view a bio-technologist as a software coder that can design living organisms to the benefit of the whole world, not just our human race.

Also, these products are only released to the public when the biotechnologists are certain that there are no harmful interactions. During the GMO application procedure, GMOs must satisfy three important biosafety aspects to even be allowed to be begin their commercial application. These aspects include

  1. Safety of food and animal feed
    • Food related risks: toxic materials, allergens, nutritional value, unwanted interactions between food compounds and substantial equivalence (compares modified plant and food components and agronomical morphologies)
  1. Environmental safety
    • Impact on non-target organisms
    • Biodiversity and ecosystem functioning impact
    • Gene flow
    • Risks associated with the development of resistance
    • Impact on soil, water, air, general ecologies and living organisms
    • Even changes in environmental practices of people
  1. Socio-economic considerations
    • If a crop is so successful that it puts small, neighboring farms out of business.

What are the potential harmful side effects?

 Chelsea:

By changing the genetic makeup of the organism, the products of the genes in the GMO might directly or indirectly affect the activity products of other genes.

A series of possible harmful side effects that are difficult to detect can be:

  • Allergies – normally harmless proteins enter the human body and trigger an immune response that causes the allergic reaction. This could be due to various reasons, such as a protein that has not been previously consumed by the human body, thus it is recognized as a foreign substance by the immune system. Although some studies in vitro (observed in a petri dish, not within a living human body) have shown possible signs of allergic reactions due to immune responses, none of great significance have yet been observed in vivo (in the human body) to confirm these suspicions.
  • Nutritional Problems – the nutritional contents of the organism or products resultant of the new genetic makeup may decrease the nutrional value that is provided by the natural form of the organism. This may be in the form of products in the GMO that are released in forms that are now indigestible by the human body or completely unavailable and no longer produced by the GMO.
  • Toxins – most plants in their natural wild-type form, for example, produce toxins that are harmful to the human body. However, these toxins are usually produced in very low quantities such that they are insignificant when ingested. GMO’s pose the threat of the quantities produced by these GMO’s to be increased and thus possibly significantly affect the human body when ingested. Even so indirectly, animals that consume these GMO plants containing the high levels of toxicity and survive and then are possibly consumed by humans, thus affecting the humans by the consumption of these animals or their products.
  • New Diseases – GMO’s in strains of bacteria may bring about antibiotic resistance that occurs simultaneously due to their new genetic makeup, allowing them the immunity to medications that humans may use to eliminate them upon infection. This poses a threat to the health of humans by making the availability of ailments suited for the recovery of the infection caused by these genetically modified microbes.

What are the benefits?

Chelsea:

Pharmaceutical products such as insulin and antibiotics that aid against the detriment of the health of individuals, human, plant and animals is a massive benefit for all life on earth.

Agricultural benefits of using GMO’s to produce a larger variety of food and beverage products at a much cheaper a cost rate. Thus, a larger group of people will have access to food sources.

Why is it bad to fear GMO’s?

Chelsea:

GMO’s allow humans the ability to manipulate their environment for their own advantage. By understanding the opportunities provided by the studies done in the GMO industry and the possibilities that it entails, one may come to realize that GMO’s do pose a great benefit to the human survival and lifespan. If one knew that the very recovery of their own ill condition or a loved one’s could be alleviated by the use of GMO’s, would they still fear this concept? By educating oneself and realizing the possibilities of GMO’s utilized in many aspects of life that provide to us as humans for our survival and even some if not many luxuries, one can weigh out the pros and cons and see the advantage GMO’s allow life on earth. Every process has negative effects, but supporting further research into this concept of GMO’s may just start to progressively eliminate these negative effects.

Do we genetically modify humans?

Chelsea:

Yes, ‘designer babies’ which is a concept that is illegal in most countries in the world. This process allows humans to genetically deign the genetic makeup of their child before the embryo is even created. The embryos, many of which fail before successful implantation, are created in a petri dish in a laboratory. A lot of people view this as unethical and as a means of ‘murder’.

How is the safety of GM foods tested?

Chelsea:

Health organizations are responsible for testing these GMO’s according to a rubric for a certain amount of time to allow the assessment of the product and its affect on the consumers. Not all of these organizations are required to test every product released, but packaging of products will indicate whether or not they have been approved by these health organizations. For example, on the label of a product it may state, “FDA-approved”. By simply paying attention to labels, one may be selective in their consumption of GMO’s.

Photo reference: http://bit.ly/1N7lrJE

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