What is Genetic Modification?
You may have heard the term GMO, or genetically modified organism, floating around recently. GMOs are a highly controversial topic right now, but what is the actual science behind them? What exactly is genetic modification?
On the simplest level, genetic modification is the intentional modification of an organism’s genetic makeup. This may sound very futuristic, but humans have actually been genetically modifying other living organisms for hundreds of years.
Even before humankind fully understood genes and inheritance, they were changing the genetic makeup of many different species through selective breeding. Every domesticated plant and animal alive today has been genetically modified via artificial selection. For example, in its original form corn was a type of grass that produced only a couple of kernels. Modern corn is an almost unrecognizably different plant because its genetic makeup has been heavily modified.
So there is certainly nothing inherently bad about genetic modification. Without genetic modification we wouldn’t be able to enjoy cornbread or have dogs as pets.
What is usually being discussed when people talk about GMOs is genetically engineered organisms. These are organisms that had genes intentionally removed or added to their DNA in a lab. Some genetically engineered organisms have genes added to them from other species, and these are known as transgenic organisms.
Have you ever been to a pet store and seen the special GloFish that fluoresce under a blacklight? Those are examples of transgenic genetically engineered organisms. They glow due to a fluorescent jellyfish gene that was added to their DNA.
Genetically engineered organisms are very common in food crops as well. For example, Flavr Savr tomatoes have had the gene that makes them go soft deleted, so they have a longer shelf life. “Golden wheat” has been engineered to have a higher Vitamin A content and prevent malnourishment. “Roundup Ready” soybeans are genetically resistant to the herbicide (weed spray) Roundup, so it’s easier to kill weeds and other unwanted plants growing around the soybeans.
While genetically modified organisms raise some concerns about overuse of pesticides or herbicides and patenting of genes, they can also help us solve agricultural problems and better feed a growing human population.
Budkevics, Arturs (photographer). (2016). Modified Tomato Genetically [photography]. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/photos/modified-tomato-genetically-food-1744952/