Last week, a group of Nobel laureates sent a strongly-worded letter to groups opposing genetically modified foods, urging the groups to look at scientific evidence when considering life-saving foods for impoverished countries. The bulk of the letter focused on opposition to Golden Rice, a GM strain that could provide essential nutrients to some of the poorest in Asia and Africa, yet it is heavily opposed by influential groups such as GreenPeace. Frustration in the letter-writers was clear especially in the closing when they ask “How many poor people must die before we consider [opposition to GMOs] a crime against humanity?”
Let’s backtrack, though. What exactly are GMOs? The proud label “GMO-free” adorns many of our grocery boxes, especially when they come from stores that pride themselves in natural or organic foods. Most folks can tell you GMO stands for “genetically modified mumblemumble” (organism, the O stands for organism), and they know it means that the “original” DNA of your food was somehow altered—some gene was perhaps added or removed.
Before we go any further, though, let’s just make sure we’re all on the same page when I say gene. What is a gene? In a broad sense, it’s a region of DNA that codes for a trait. Specifically, a gene is a region of DNA that codes for a protein. It’s a specific series of nucleotides (remember those A’s, T’s, G’s, and C’s), and the coding region can be as short as a few hundred nucleotides or as long as the gene for dystrophin, approximately 2.5 million bases in length.
You probably remember from biology class that we diploid humans have two copies of our DNA–one from mom and one from dad. Then you probably remember that variations of a given gene are called alleles, and you often have dominant and recessive alleles. The truth is DNA expression gets much more complicated than that. In addition to dominant and recessive, you can have alleles that show co-dominance, incomplete dominance, variable expressivity, variations in penetrance, and that weird imprinting thing where gene expression will be determined by which parent you gave you a particular allele. It’s really wild.
In addition, there are a few non-DNA ways to work a little variation into gene expression. On the one hand, you have have variations in proteins depending on mRNA splicing. After DNA is transcribed into RNA during the gene expression process, that RNA can get a bit altered to make slight variations. Even crazier than that, the whole world of epigenetics is exploding right now. Epigenetics is study how some traits are passed on even when they are NOT coded for by DNA, and you can see how that can shake up our last century or so of the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology.
With all of this in mind, I can see how genetically modified foods might be worrisome. Though some legitimate concerns of modifying crops do exist, most of the arguments I’ve heard against GMOs are we’re playing God, we don’t know enough about genetics, I don’t want heavier use of pesticides, Monsanto sucks, and when all else fails natural is just better (lies…mosquitoes are natural, and they’re boogers.)
There is some merit to each of these concerns. I certainly don’t want more pesticides/herbicides used than we absolutely need; that is a major environmental issue, for sure. And I don’t want to create some weird chimaera that’s half potato, half tuber, and half 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (Math is hard, spelling is worse.) I think the visualization, though, is some nameless, faceless scientist in a faraway laboratory, plucking one gene from one creature, injecting that glowing or sparking gene into another creature, and then hoping for the best while shipping it to your shopping cart. However, nothing about this scenario is at all accurate.
The truth is, genetically modified foods are not scary, and in a way, have been around for thousands of years. None of us have ever eaten “natural corn” because it’s essentially glorified grass that has been selectively grown over thousands of years. When you expedite that process with lab techniques, it does become more complicated and involved, yes (see image below); but that doesn’t necessarily make it unsafe. The “Round-up Ready” gene, for example, came from a common soil bacterium. Most of us ate dirt as kids (well, I did, I wasn’t about to lose a cookie even if I dropped it in the mud), meaning I was probably eating the Round-up Ready gene long before it appeared in produce.
The selection process for a candidate gene is precise, and researchers do know that they have to be able to plan ahead for how a protein will interact in a new species or in your body. Plus, there are numerous trials and checkpoints after the introduction of a newly modified crop. In short, years of research have gone into the processing of a product before you ever see a GM food at the store, and those researchers have spent their career understanding how genes work. And better yet, comprehensive research has shown that there has been no effect from GM foods on either our livestock or us.
As for the “playing God” argument, I do understand that as well. My faith is incredibly important to me, and I do try to live my life for Christ. In response to that as argument against GM foods…ehh…I would just like to present Exhibit A and Exhibit B.
The issue with Monsanto…now that is 100% legit. There is no question that the company’s business practices have long been shady, cruel, and probably criminal if they weren’t armed with the best lawyers money can buy. You can check out this list of their legal issues, but I do apologize that it’s just Wikipedia. (I hate citing sources for you guys that aren’t necessarily trustworthy, but it’s relatively comprehensive and you can fact-check it.) Monsanto also ends up spraying copious quantities of herbicide willy-nilly, basically because they can, which is concerning from an environmental standpoint. Thus, if your issue with GM foods stems from a dislike Monsanto, I’ll high five that.
Bottom line, though, your grocery store food is not a Mr. Potato Head mix-and-match of crazy traits. If mix and matching genes were all there is to it, I’d have my genetically engineered dragon by now! I know exactly what traits I would combine for the PERFECT dragon. No, seriously, I’ve given this some thought:
- I want my dragon to be huge and I want to move with the kind of dorsoventral undulation that mammals use (rather than the splayed-limbed lateral undulation gait of a reptile), therefore, my basal genome would have to be a large mammal, not a reptile. Plus, life just seems easier as an endotherm.
- However, I do want it to have reptilian features, such as scales and a flickering tongue to sense the world using a Jacobson’s organ. So I would mix in a little bit of snake—preferably one with keeled scales, those are the coolest.
- Then, I want my dragon to breathe fire. No problem, we’ll just mix in a few genes from the Bombardier beetle. Beetles in this group have two chambers to hold chemicals that, when sprayed together, produce a near-boiling hot jet of self-defense. I’ll just have to tweak it a bit to make fire and to make it spray from the mouth or nose instead of abdomen, like the beetle.
- Finally, wings. I need wings. I don’t want to sacrifice front limbs to make wings, so I think I’ll duplicate a portion of the Hox genes complex of bats to add a set of front limbs, but those limbs will be wings!
Alright, playtime is over, back to business.
Before I wrap this up, I want to add that I most definitely know there are researchers in the world working on genetics projects that have bioethicists as well as the rest of us raising our eyebrows and wondering “Is that really necessary?” You can find sketchiness in any camp, and scientists are no exception. That is not what is happening with GM foods, however. The public issue with GM foods is that we humans have a distinct tendency to dislike what we don’t understand. That innate skepticism has probably saved our lives more than once, and it can be a very good thing to be critical. At some point, though, you will have to trust someone else. We trust Ford and Chevy to make a safe 1.5 ton box of metal to propel us down a concrete roadway alongside other boxes of metal, all moving at 65 mph or more. Yet when the train first became a usable form of transportation, passengers feared the “neck-breaking” speed of 20 miles per hour and the “eerie” appearance of a mode of transportation not pulled by horses. New can be weird, but weird can be good.
I’m not saying you have to love and embrace all GM foods, and we all know science will never be perfect as long as humans are manning the helm. However, we have solid data that say, overall, we don’t really have to worry about our veggies.
Don’t just take my word for it, though. For more information, including discussions of topics I didn’t get into for the sake of time (e.g. allergens, wild cross-pollination, etc), check out what the World Health Organization has to say about GMOs, this article from Scientific American, this older article that demonstrates how research has been ongoing for quite a while, this article from Forbes that summarizes a journal article (but you can look up the original), or this cool page from the University of Utah! (Just don’t forget to look for trustworthy sources.)
In the meanwhile, keep exploring!