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Genetically Modified Organisms

Genetically Modified Organisms

The words "genetically modified organisms" tend to generate a reaction in many people. Some people may, because of word-of-mouth or misinformation online, automatically assume that genetically modified organisms are confirmed to be dangerous to human health and the environment. This is so prevalent in our society, that "non-GMO" labels are now frequently seen on foods, alongside labels such as "organic" and "gluten-free"!

However, where a label like "gluten-free" is known to be important for the health of many people (particularly those suffering from celiac disease), there is currently no evidence to suggest that genetically modified foods carry any significant risks to humans.

Due to the relatively recent development of genetically modified foods, longer-term studies are lacking, but the available evidence proposes that these foods may be a vital tool in alleviating nutritional deficiencies and even combatting starvation in developing regions, as well as in meeting the ever-growing demand of an unsustainable human population!

So, let's dive into the world of genetically modified organisms!

Genetically Modified Organisms Definition

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms that have genetically engineered modifications. Any living organism that has had its DNA engineered by humans is a GMO. While we often associate GMOs with commercial produce (fruits and vegetables), they can also be animals and other organisms. GMOs involve the insertion of specific genes into an organism.

The first GMO was produced in 1973 and was a bacteria species resistant to the kanamycin antibiotic and the first GMO animal was a mouse, which was created the following year. The field has grown by leaps and bounds in the nearly half century since then. With the advent of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), the field of genetic engineering was revolutionized, simplifying the creation of GMOs. While it is relatively easy to modify the genetics of bacteria, the process becomes more complex and difficult with larger animals, such as humans.

Genetically Modified Organisms Examples

Now, let's look at some examples of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Golden rice

A deficiency in the vitamin A is very common in many of the world's developing countries, particularly in parts of Africa and South Asia. In fact, it has been estimated that nearly 700,000 children under the age of five die, and a further 250,000-500,000 go blind, annually due to vitamin A deficiency (VAD). In order to combat this problem, scientists have genetically modified rice to be fortified with vitamin A. They accomplished this by biosynthesizing beta-carotene, which is then converted to vitamin A. This new, vitamin A fortified version of rice is known as golden rice.

Genetically Modified Organisms Golden rice (right) vs regular white rice (left). Study Smarter

Figure 1: Golden rice (right) vs regular white rice (left). Source: The Guardian

Salmon

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) have been genetically modified to have an increased appetite (year-round, rather than seasonal) which allows them to grow at a greater rate, thus making them fit for human consumption in much less time. This form of GMO salmon is called AquAdvantage salmon, in reference to the company that produces it, AquaBounty Technologies.

Genetically Modified Organisms AquAdvantage salmon (larger) vs wild-type salmon (smaller). Study Smarter

Figure 2: AquAdvantage salmon (larger) vs wild-type salmon (smaller). Source: Fish Farming Expert

Citrus crops

In order to combat a disease called "citrus greening", which is affecting citrus crops, scientists are genetically engineering oranges to be resistant to the virus, which is transmitted to the crops via an insect vector (citrus psyllids, which are small herbivorous insects). They have been accomplishing this by inserting genes from the spinach plant (which can fight off the virus) into a harmless vector virus (citrus tristeza virus) which most crops are already infected with, thus rendering the crops resistant.

Genetically Modified Organisms Citrus-greening disease. Study Smarter

Figure 3: Citrus-greening disease. Source: US Department of Agriculture

Mosquitos

Millions of GMO mosquitoes are being planned for release in the US states of California and Florida in an effort to reduce the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, thus also reducing the incidence or preventing the resurgence of diseases such as dengue, yellow fever, and Zika. The company responsible, a biotechnology firm named Oxitec, have accomplished this by engineering non-biting mosquitoes of the same species to only be capable of producing male offspring, thus rendering populations unviable. Preliminary releases have already occurred in Brazil and the Florida Keys.

Genetically Modified Organisms The Aedes aegypti mosquito. Study Smarter

Figure 4: The Aedes aegypti mosquito. Source: James Gathany, Center for Disease Control Public Health Image Library

Papayas

During the 1990s, papaya crops in the US state of Hawaii were threatened by a disease called ringspot virus, which is a virus of the Potyvirus genus. Papayas were then genetically modified to have resistance to the virus and, at the present day, the majority of papayas grown in Hawaii are the product of genetic modification.

Genetically Modified Organisms Ringspot virus on a papaya. Study Smarter

Figure 5: Ringspot virus on a papaya. Source: aps.net

Corn

Crops of GMO corn have been produced in the US and Canada since 1997 and currently comprise the vast majority of corn grown in the US, but less than half of global corn crops. GMO corn has a number of uses, including as cornmeal to feed livestock, for the production of ethanol, as a sweetener, starch, and syrup, as well as for human consumption.

Cotton

Nearly all (93%) of cotton grown in the US is genetically modified. These crops have been engineered to be resistant to pests, such as the bollworm, which is the larva of the Helicoverpa armigera species of moth. GMO cotton has a number of uses, including the production of cottonseed oil, cottonseed meal to feed livestock, as an insulating material, in clothing, and much more.

Genetically Modified Organisms in Food Production

GMOs are common in food production. In fact, it is highly likely that you are consuming GMO foods on a weekly basis, whether you know it or not. Crops have been genetically modified for a number of reasons, including to increase growth and production rates, provide protection from diseases and insects, and resistance from specific environmental conditions. Some common examples of foods that are genetically modified include cantaloupe, corn, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, strawberries, tomatoes, and much more. GMO foods are a relatively new development, with the first being produced only within the past 40 years. The first GMO food produced was a GM tomato in 1983 and GMO crops were first approved by the FDA in the United States in the mid-1990s.

Genetically Modified Organisms: Pros and Cons

There are a number of reasons why GMOs are very important and beneficial to human populations. GMOs can shorten the time needed to produce certain food resources, render crops more resistant to disease, environmental conditions, and pests, reduce spoilage rates, and may remove the need to use pesticides.

GMOs can also help to feed impoverished and malnourished populations in some developing countries, as was illustrated above with the use of golden rice. Many scientists also consider GMOs to be vital for a sustainable future, given the resource demands of a human population that is at nearly 8 billion and growing. GMOs can even make food taste better! The following are some pros and cons of genetically modified organisms.

Pros

  • GMOs can help sustain an unsustainable human population.

  • GMOs can be resistant to disease, temperature extremes, and pests.

  • GMO crops may require fewer or no pesticides.

  • GMO foods can grow much quicker and larger, thus increasing production rates and yield.

  • GMO foods can be engineered to be more nutritious, with more vitamins and/or minerals.

  • GMO foods are often cheaper than non-GMO foods.

Cons

  • There is a risk of GMOs entering the ecosystem and impacting wild populations of related species.

  • GMOs could result in antibiotic resistance in the affected species.

  • There is the possibility of allergic reactions due GMO foods, though this has been seldom reported.

Thus far, there is no compelling evidence that consuming GMO foods increases the cancer risk in humans, though long-term studies are needed.

Genetically Modified Organisms - Key takeaways

  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms that have genetically engineered modifications. Any living organism that has had its DNA engineered by humans is a GMO.
  • The first GMO was produced in 1973 and was a bacteria species resistant to the kanamycin antibiotic and the first GMO animal was a mouse, which was created the following year.
  • The first GMO food produced was a GM tomato in 1983.
  • GMOs can shorten the time needed to produce certain food resources, render crops more resistant to disease, environmental conditions, and pests, reduce spoilage rates, reduce pesticide use, and help feed impoverished and malnourished populations.
  • There is no evidence that GMO foods increase cancer risk in humans, though long term studies are needed.

Frequently Asked Questions about Genetically Modified Organisms

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms that have genetically engineered modifications. Any living organism that has had its DNA engineered by humans is a GMO. While we often associate GMOs with commercial produce (fruits and vegetables), they can also be animals and other organisms. GMOs involve the insertion of specific genes into an organism. 


Cons of GMOs:

  • There is a risk of GMOs entering the ecosystem and impacting wild populations of related species.

  • GMOs could result in antibiotic resistance in the affected species.

  • There is the possibility of allergic reactions due GMO foods, though this has been seldom reported.

Examples:

1. Golden rice: It has been estimated that nearly 700,000 children under the age of five die, and a further 250,000-500,000 go blind, annually due to vitamin A deficiency (VAD). In order to combat this problem, scientists have genetically modified rice to be fortified with vitamin A. 


2. In order to combat a disease called "citrus greening", which is affecting citrus crops, scientists are genetically engineering oranges to be resistant to the virus, which is transmitted to the crops via an insect vector (citrus psyllids, which are small herbivorous insects).

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms that have genetically engineered modifications. Any living organism that has had its DNA engineered by humans is a GMO. While we often associate GMOs with commercial produce (fruits and vegetables), they can also be animals and other organisms. GMOs involve the insertion of specific genes into an organism. 


Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms that have genetically engineered modifications. Any living organism that has had its DNA engineered by humans is a GMO. The field has grown by leaps and bounds in the nearly half century since then. With the advent of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), the field of genetic engineering was revolutionized, simplifying the creation of GMOs. While it is relatively easy to modify the genetics of bacteria, the process becomes more complex and difficult with larger animals, such as humans. 

Final Genetically Modified Organisms Quiz

Question

The first GMO was produced in ____.

Show answer

Answer

1973

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Question

CRISPR stands for _________________.

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Answer

clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats

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Question

What GMO food has been created to address vitamin A deficiencies in some developing countries?

Show answer

Answer

Golden rice

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Question

The first GMO food produced was a GM ______ in ____.

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Answer

tomato; 1983

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Question

True or False: the consumption of GMO foods is known to be associated with a significantly increased risk of developing cancer.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or False: there is a risk of GMOs entering the ecosystem and impacting wild populations of related species.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

True or False: GMOs can be resistant to disease, temperature extremes, and pests.

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Answer

True

Show question

Question

True or False: GMO crops typically require more pesticides than non-GMO crops.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

Millions of GMO ________ are being planned for introduction into the US states of California and Florida.

Show answer

Answer

Mosquitoes

Show question

Question

During the 1990s, _______ crops in the US state of Hawaii were threatened by a disease called ________.

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Answer

papaya; ringspot virus

Show question

Question

In order to combat a disease called _____________, which is affecting certain crops, scientists are genetically engineering oranges to be resistant to the virus.

Show answer

Answer

citrus greening

Show question

Question

Golden rice was created by biosynthesizing _________, which was then converted to ________.

Show answer

Answer

beta-carotene; vitamin A

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Question

What percentage of cotton grown in the US is genetically modified?

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Answer

93%

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Question

Cotton crops have been genetically modified to become resistant to _____, such as _________.

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Answer

pests; bollworm

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Question

Crops of GMO corn currently comprise _____________of corn grown in the US, but __________ of global corn crops.

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Answer

the vast majority; less than half

Show question

Question

True or False: GMO foods can be engineered to be more nutritious, with more vitamins and/or minerals.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

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