What are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and why is it important that you know them thoroughly

What are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and why is it important that you know them thoroughly

Genetically modified organisms have been on the market for several decades, and although many people are not aware of it, they may be consuming vegetables that work as vaccines or breeding domestic animals whose DNA has been scientifically altered. Although it sounds like fiction, transgenic organisms are completely real. If you want to know what GMO means and what a transgenic organism is, don’t miss these facts:

First of all: What are GMOs?

Let’s start by defining what are genetically modified organisms or what is GMOs. A genetically modified organism (GMO) is a living being whose genetic material has been altered by including DNA from another species or which has received an intentional manipulation of a specific genetic marker.

This practice is carried out with the intention that plants, animals, viruses, and bacteria have new properties or improve their natural characteristics. Thanks to the application of genetic engineering, it has been possible to develop crops that are more resistant to pests, much more productive animals for consumption, new microorganisms capable of fighting diseases, and more.

The origin of transgenics

Human beings have modified the genetic material of plants and animals for thousands of years, through the artificial selection of species.

Plants and animals that had heritable characteristics favorable to man and his lifestyle were kept in his society in exchange for protection and other biological resources that conferred an evolutionary advantage. Over time, more productive plants (crops) and animals better adapted to human life (cattle and pets) were generated.

Although, it was not until 1973 that Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen transferred DNA from one living being to another for the first time, beginning the era of GMOs. That same year the first transgenic mouse would be born, the name by which the genetically modified species would be known.

Later, in 1981, the first transgenic mouse capable of inheriting its modification to the next generation was created. Two years later, the first genetically modified plant is born.

Fun fact: What does transgenic mean? Transgenics are organisms that have the material in their DNA that comes from other species, introduced through artificial means.

The science that interferes with the process of transgenics

The creation of transgenics is the field of study of genetic engineering, a technique that derives from cell biology and chemistry and is largely supported by technological equipment.

The modifications are made through the isolation of genetic material from a living being, which can then be blocked, annulled, removed, duplicated, or transferred to another. Properties achieved through biochemical processes such as these are often inherited.

These new technologies are based on hundreds of biosafety studies associated with genetically modified organisms in molecular biology.

Uses of GMOs

Once we understand what transgenic organisms are, we can quickly conclude that they have fascinating applications.

From the production of human enzymes in modified bacteria, through the production of transgenic foods of great benefit, to animals genetically modified to have unique characteristics.

Here are some famous examples within this area of ​​research:

Efficient food production

The production of genetically modified foods was one of the first commercial applications of this branch of scientific knowledge.

In the plants, fruits are produced that take longer to decompose, giving a greater margin of extraction and commercialization. A very popular golden rice has been created that can synthesize beta-carotene, greatly increasing its nutritional value.

In the case of cattle, synthesizers (genetically modified bacteria) are used to produce enzymes such as bovine somatotropin, which considerably increases milk production in cows.

Other examples of GMOs include underway studies to produce transgenic salmon that can grow year-round and finish maturing in half the time of conventional salmon.

Self-resistant crops

Another great area of ​​​​application of GMOs is the creation of transgenics resistant to pests, herbicides, infections, and diseases associated with the crop.

Thanks to this added property, farmers can drastically reduce the use of chemicals to combat pests, since the modified plants have genes capable of producing their own defenses.

Crops less dependent on herbicides and pesticides are safer or healthier.

Corn and soybeans are among the most famous examples of genetically modified organisms in Mexico. In other countries, cotton and papaya also stand out.

Therapeutic applications

There are many examples of genetically modified organisms in the therapeutic area.

Regarding research in the health sector, some animals are genetically modified to test the effects of the deactivation of certain genes, discover their particular role; or cause controlled diseases that help evaluate a potential cure.

Genetic modification has allowed the development of xenotransplantation, organs, tissues, or cells that grow in animals and that are intended for transfusions to other living beings, such as heart valves of porcine origin that are used in humans with minimal rejection.

The synthesis of therapeutic material is also a remarkable application. Some bacteria, for example, can synthesize insulin, thanks to the incorporation of human genes.

Some yeasts also go through this process and are capable of producing antigens, useful in the manufacture of vaccines.

Domestic animals

One of the lesser-known applications, but one that will surely give a lot to talk about for years to come, is the production of genetically modified domestic animals to be healthier and safer.

Some examples of domestic transgenic organisms may be cats that do not produce the “Fel d 1” protein found in their saliva and skin, which is the cause of most allergic reactions. This is caused by the deletion of the synthesizing gene.

Dogs have a similar protein identified as “Can d 1” that can also be blocked with this same method, greatly reducing allergic reactions in sensitive humans.

Some additional experimentation includes the incorporation of fluorescence in animals to identify them within a population. It includes fish to rats.

Pest control

GMOs have been studied to control the spread of certain diseases. An example case may be studied on the spread of malaria, which is planned to be controlled through the creation of transgenic mosquitoes immune to the Plasmodium falciparum parasite.

These mosquitoes can insert themselves into the population of certain areas and transmit their genetic immunity to future offspring.

Although it is not a definitive solution, it is a really powerful tool that, if used well, can be the spearhead to eradicate terrible diseases.

Advantages and disadvantages of GMOs

The creation of transgenics presents a series of considerable advantages over traditional methods of natural selection of species, including artificial selection based on studies, since they promote the acquisition of favorable characteristics in many scenarios.

On the other hand, genetic modification is a very recent area, so it is not exempt from controversy and international regulations.

For this reason, it is convenient to delve into the benefits of genetically modified organisms and the notable disadvantages of this practice.

Advantages of genetically modified organisms

Some characteristics of transgenic organisms are almost impossible to produce in natural settings, thus acknowledging multiple advantages in their application. For example:

Produce quick fixes

Applying genetic modifications reduces the development of ideal characteristics in crops, fruits, or animals. Processes that can take decades through traditional selection and crossbreeding can be applied in one or two years with the necessary means. This translates into:

  • More productive crops in a few years.
  • Rapid adaptation of new species to adverse environments.
  • Effective pest control in a short time.
  • Possibility of obtaining characteristics by modifying a single gene, keeping the rest of the properties intact.

Improves the consumer’s quality of life

GM consumer products are safe in controlled contexts, while the addition of high nutritional properties improves product quality. Thus, consumers obtain a higher yield of food at a lower cost. The positive factors in this area include:

  • Possibility of acquiring longer-lasting fruits and vegetables.
  • Fortified foods help fight malnutrition effectively.
  • Food is less related to pesticides or herbicides.
  • Fruits with enzymes that give resistance to diseases can be included.

Increases production efficiency

In the field of industrialized production and agriculture, the introduction of transgenics has very clear advantages, from the ability to eradicate common pests, to the improvement in crop yields or animal extraction. Thanks to this you can perceive benefits such as:

  • Reduced harvest cycles, with greater production and use of space.
  • Animals and plants are better adapted to harsh environments.
  • Easy control of pests and diseases.
  • Reduction of harmful chemicals associated with harvesting and breeding.
  • Possibility of punctual modification of genes, without damaging the genome in natural genetic organisms.
  • Speed ​​​​in the application of solutions to complex problems.

Disadvantages of genetically modified organisms

Unfortunately, not everything is rosy for the GMO industry, which has quite considerable downsides, some almost as big as its upsides. Here are some disadvantages of GMOs:

Oligopolistic market

The transgenic seed market is an area that is difficult to enter due to the amount of investment required for its production and modification. This has caused almost all of this market to be dominated by a small group of companies. This brings as a negative factor element such as:

  • Impossibility of negotiating the price of seeds.
  • Strengthens the entry barrier for new genetically modified products.
  • Extensive regulations for the sector.
  • The high development cost for new variants and full control over patents.

Potential environmental side effects

The insertion of transgenics works the same as the incorporation of a new species within an ecosystem, which, can have completely unpredictable consequences. When hiring this you can notice that:

  • Some pest-resistant genetically modified species can divert invaders into the surrounding vegetation.
  • By requiring fewer herbicides or insecticides, a “snowball” effect can be created in non-GM vegetation.
  • Pollinating insects can take pollen from transgenic species and transfer it to unmodified species, making them transgenic.
  • Paradoxically, having plants resistant to herbicides can encourage the use of herbicides by some farmers, which affects the biodiversity that surrounds the crops.

Reproduction and use limitations

GMOs have strict use regulations, which means that in many settings farmers cannot use the seeds that are produced through GM planting to produce new ones. Mainly, because they would be acting against the regulation of the manufacture of modified products and because some of these organisms lose efficiency with the passing of generations.

A negative component of this stands out:

  • Limited self-control of production.
  • Total dependence on the seed producer.
  • Need for high plantation rotation.

Problems associated with GMOs

Delving into the meaning of GMOs and how delicate genetic modification can be, especially when inserting DNA into naturally incompatible species (such as the insertion of human genes into bacteria for enzyme production), some important points in its use can be highlighted. . For example:

Lack of studies in the area

The anti-transgenic movements claim that the ability to modify specific genes and transfer them between living beings is too new a science to be used commercially, much less for consumption.

In their argument, they reflect on the lack of long-term studies, as well as the short time that transgenic solutions are tested before being implemented.

Certainly, there is no way to predict a side effect 100 years from now, but, in favor of GMOs, there is also no way to be sure that there will be such negative effects. Currently, despite rigorous international biosafety regulations, this movement continues to generate controversy.

The problem of transgenics and resistant microorganisms

Another problem associated with the creation of genetically modified microorganisms is that many of them acquire resistance to antibiotics as part of the process of including new genes.

It is alleged that poor management of this resource can produce dangerous strains, actually resistant to conventional antibiotics.

The benefit to humanity, a resource of destruction

Genetic modification is a tool like any other, but it, like nuclear energy, can have devastating results if applied inappropriately.

Without wanting to dramatize, one can refer to the attempts to incorporate recessive sterilization genes in some species of disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes, with the intention that several generations later they will become extinct due to lack of reproductive potential.

The problem with scenarios like these is that it is impossible to measure the effects resulting from the inclusion of an organism that has been genetically modified to such an extent within a certain environment, much less in systems as intimately connected as the biospheres.

As tempting as these applications are from an anthropocentric stance, playing with nature from limited knowledge can be devastating, although the fault should not fall on the tool, but on its carrier.

In conclusion, genetically modified organisms are an inescapable reality and for better or worse they have an overwhelming potential to completely change the laws of nature. However, it is impossible to deny the implications of the indiscriminate creation of transgenic organisms and how quickly they can turn against humans if not treated carefully.

 

References

  • Johnson, CC, Walton, JB, & Peters-Burton, EE (2022, May 25). Genetically Modified Organisms, Grade 7: STEM Road Map for Middle School (STEM Road Map Curriculum Series) (1st ed.). Routledge.
  • Opinion of the Scientific Panel on genetically modified organisms [GMO] on the Post Market Environmental Monitoring (PMEM) of genetically modified plants. (2006, March). EFSA Journal4 (3), 319. https://doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2006.319
  • Opinion of the Scientific Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms on the use of antibiotic resistance genes as marker genes in genetically modified plants. (2004, April). EFSA Journal2 (4), 48. https://doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2004.48

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