For thousands of years, humans have genetically enhanced other living beings through the practice of selective breeding. Sweet corn and seedless watermelons at local grocery stores as well as purebred dogs at the park are all examples of how humans have selectively enhanced desirable traits in other living creatures. In his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin discussed how selective breeding by humans had been successful in producing change over time. As technology improves, our ability to manipulate plants and other organisms by introducing new genes promises both new innovations and potential risks.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants, animals, or microorganisms in which genetic material, such as DNA, has been artificially manipulated to produce a certain advantageous product. This recombinant genetic engineering allows certain chosen genes, even those from unassociated species, to be transplanted from one organism into another.1 Genetically modified crops are usually utilized to yield an increased level of crop production and to introduce resistance against diseases. Virus resistance makes plants less susceptible to diseases caused by insects and viruses, resulting in higher crop yields.
Genetic enhancement has improved beyond selective breeding as gene transfer technology has become capable of directly altering genomic sequences . Using a “cut and paste” mechanism, a desired gene can be isolated from a target organism via restriction enzymes and then inserted into a bacterial host using DNA ligase. Once the new gene is introduced, the cells with the inserted DNA (known as “recombinant” DNA) can be bred to generate an advanced strain that can be further replicated to produce the desired gene product.1 Due to this genetic engineering process, researchers have been able to produce synthetic insect-resistant tomatoes, corn, and potatoes. Humans’ ability to modify crops has improved yields and nutrients in a given environment, becoming the keystone of modern agriculture.2 Despite these positive developments, skepticism still exists regarding the safety and societal impact of GMOs.
The technological advancement from selective breeding to genetic engineering has opened up a plethora of possibilities for the future of food. As scientific capabilities expand, ethics and ideals surrounding the invasive nature of the production of GMOs have given rise to concerns about safety and long-term impacts. According to the Center for Food Safety, GMO seeds are used in 90 percent of corn, soybeans, and cotton grown in the United States.2 Because GMO crops are so prevalent, any negative ecological interactions involving a GMO product could prove devastating for the environment.
While the dangers of genetic modification are being considered, genetic engineering has proven to have benefits to human health and the farming industry. Genetically modified foods maintain a longer shelf life, which allows for the safe transport of surplus foodstuffs to people in countries without access to nutrition-rich foods. Genetic engineering has supplemented staple crops with vital minerals and nutrients, , helping fight worldwide malnutrition. For example, Golden rice is a genetically-modified variant of rice that biosynthesizes beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.3 This type of rice is intended to be produced and consumed in areas with a shortage of dietary vitamin A, which is a deficiency that kills 670,000 children each year. Despite the controversial risks, genetic engineering of crops promises to continually increase the availability and durability of food.
- Learn.Genetics. http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/science/gmfoods/ (accessed Sep 20, 2016)
- Fernandez-Cornejo, Jorge, and Seth James Wechsler. USDA ERS – Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S.: Recent Trends in GE Adoption. USDA ERS – Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S.: Recent Trends in GE Adoption. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us/recent-trends-in-ge-adoption.aspx (accessed Sep 30,2016)
- Dan Charles. In A Grain Of Golden Rice, A World Of Controversy Over GMO Foods. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/03/07/173611461/in-a-grain-of-golden-rice-a-world-of-controversy-over-gmo-foods (accessed Sep 24, 2016)