The Great Debate: Genetically Modified Organisms

Illustration by Jennifer Broza

Illustration by Jennifer Broza

Much of the food we eat today is not at all similar to the food our ancestors ate. Much of what we consume has been genetically altered. Through the combination of biotechnology, genetic engineering, and computer engineering techniques, the range of possible DNA products is greatly increased, thus allowing scientists to change the genetic composition of what we consume. Through the use of synthetic biology, and more specifically, plasmid insertion and DNA editing techniques, scientists have been able to create what we call Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). These GMOs are quite controversial, despite the benefits they bring to many individuals.

Take, for example, Golden Rice. Golden Rice is a GMO that possesses the ability to produce beta-Carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. The idea for Golden Rice originated when it was realized that genes in existing crops can be modified, thus giving crops more nutrition or allowing them to withstand adverse climates. There are over one million children who die every year due to vitamin A deficiencies (VAD). Vitamin A is important for vision, the immune system, and reproduction, which is why it is crucial to consume enough of it. VAD is prevalent among poor individuals whose diets are carbohydrate-heavy (2). When individuals rely on rice as a staple food, they are more likely to develop VAD than those who eat a well-balanced diet. This is extremely common in children and pregnant women.

After Golden Rice was introduced to communities with a high prevalence of VAD, it was seen that these individuals began to rely on the GMO as a source for Vitamin A, when it was supposed to be a complementary source of it (2). Foods high in Vitamin A, such as carrots and parsley, are better sources of the vitamin, but many of these individuals assumed that since the rice was modified to produce Vitamin A, there was no need to consume other foods that contain this nutrient. VAD may lead to blindness, so it is crucial for the rice to be consumed solely as a supplement, rather than a staple for Vitamin A. It is not apparent enough that Golden Rice does not eliminate VAD, but rather, reduces it, resulting in debate surrounding its promotion. The crop has great potential, as long as it is consumed alongside other nutritious foods.

Crops do not have to be modified so that their nutritious value is increased; they can be modified to better withstand the environment they are grown in. Whether it be severe weather conditions or pest problems, crops can often be modified in order to combat these issues. Insecticides and pesticides are commonly used to kill bugs that threaten the growth and survival of crops. Some crops are more prone to these pests than others, which is when genetic modification is frequently relied on. Crops can be engineering to express a certain bacterial gene, taste, or scent, thereby reducing the number of pests attracted to that particular crop (3). Often times, the taste or smell inserted into the crop’s genome repels the pests, thus eliminating, or greatly reducing, the need for synthetic pesticides (3).

An example of this is corn that was genetically-modified so that insects would no longer be attracted to the crop (1). The insecticides that were used prior to this genetic modification were “to fight the corn rootworm and European corn borer.” So far, the GMO has been able to fight off these pests, but researchers predict that these effects won’t last. “Corn rootworms have evolved resistance to one of the genes that has been deployed against them.” This is possible for other organisms that are modified to protect against pests, and one of the main concerns of modifying organisms.

GMOs are a big topic of debate throughout the world of science. GMOs, just like any organism, are capable of mutating, as the behavior of bioengineered systems is quite unpredictable (4). However, when GMOs mutate, it is often viewed to be the scientist’s fault, rather than biology’s. GMOs may save the lives of individuals, especially when are crops modified so that their nutritional value is increased. On the other hand, the genomes of other crops are altered, removing the need for artificial insecticides. GMOs have great potential, yet their risks have yet to been fully explored. The debate as to whether or not GMOs are safe is ongoing, despite their large presence in our refrigerators and pantries. The next time you take a bite out of something, be aware that it may not be what you think it really is.  

Edited by: Anthony Wu

Illustrated by: Jennifer Broza

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