The advent of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) took the world by storm decades ago. The idea of ‘modifying the living’ created quite a stir with controversies surfacing both on ethical and scientific grounds. ‘Living Modified Organism’, is defined in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which monitors international trade in living Genetically Modified Organisms as – Any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern Biotechnology.
Genetic modification means mutation, insertion, or deletion of genes. Inserted genes are introduced from various species by horizontal gene-transfer. A natural example of this would be transfer of F-plasmid in Escherichia coli, a process called conjugation. A bridge is developed between the donor and recipient cell without cell-to-cell contact. Antibiotic resistance or the ability to use different metabolites maybe few of the many reasons for conjugation.
Genetically modified organisms are prepared artificially in laboratories by:
Transfection– attaching the genes to a virus.
Microinjection– inserting DNA using a syringe into the nucleus.
Electroporation– introducing DNA into the cell using an electric pulse.
Biolistic Particle Delivery System– Gene gun.
A natural way of doing the same would be inducing Agrobacterium tumifaciens which transfers the T-plasmid (transfer plasmid) causing Crown Gall disease in plants. This pathogenic attribute can be utilized to deliver vital genes, producing transgenic crops.
Genetically Modified Organisms mostly comprises of transgenic crops and modifications include antibiotic resistance, pesticide resistance, generation or over-production of essential primary and secondary metabolites. Few other benefits of genetic engineering in agriculture are increased crop yields, pest resistance, increase in the nutrient composition (fortification) and food quality and greater food security. Progress has also been achieved in producing crops that can grow and mature fast with tolerance to metal, salt, drought, frost, and other environmental factors. This gives a new leash to the plants which may grow in even unfavorable environment.
The latest advancement is achieved in developing genetically modified rice with increased content of iron and zinc. This fortification of food will help curb deficiency in the most convenient, cheap manner.
The other genetically modified organisms’ examples include Hepatitis B surface antigen in tobacco plants, glyphosate (herbicide) tolerance in soyabean and type 1 growth hormone in Coho salmon.
Potential Harm due to Genetically Modified Organisms:
Despite being transferred naturally, the risks posed due to the altered state and the effects of the modifications are unknown. Many myths and controversies keep making rounds. One such example would be that of Bt Corn. Before the genetic modification, the protein expressed from Bacillus thuringenesis was well used as environment-friendly insecticide. It’s addition to corn made it possible to use less amount of insecticide. However, seeds containing the recombinant gene may unintentionally spread the gene into the environment or exposure to non-target organisms.
Another concern associated with GMOs is monopoly by private companies.There is high chance that private companies will hold the propreitary rights over genetically modified organisms and will sell the technology or products at high prices. Considering the possibility of this scenario, it will be detrimental to the economy. The two strata- Haves and Have nots as mentioned by Karl Marx, would thereby develop- those who cannot afford the transgenic seeds would not make the necessary profits the other half would.
New genetically modified organisms are produced and approved with necessary precautions in place. With latest approvals like Flu vaccine in US and changing environmental conditions may have compelled scientists to work against the so-called religious abominations.