Science & Tech, World

What is GMO? – An Unbiased Approach

The conversation about genetically modified organisms (GMO) seems to always end up in one of two places: you either end up listening to “Frankenfood” hysteria or to the lip service of biased companies involved in the use of genetic engineering technologies. There is hardly ever any room made for an unbiased view on the subject. Here is an unbiased rundown of what genetic modification is, the technology’s relevance to our society, and what the science says about the risks of using genetic engineering.

What is GMO

Genetic engineering or modification can involve the addition or deletion of genes as well as the introduction of specific point mutations in a species’ DNA. Genes can be transferred between members of the same species of organism, resulting in the creation of an organism that is referred to as “cisgenic.” When genes from one species are transplanted into another species’ DNA, the species that is undergoing transplant is called “transgenic.” This technology is used in a variety of ways, from the production of chemical reactants to the production of food.

Although the conversation about genetic engineering has become most common in recent years, GMO has actually been around for quite a while. The first was bacteria, introduced in 1973. There is even a GMO that was designed as a pet called the Glofish, a fluorescent, glow-in-the-dark type of fish. GMOs are commonly used in a microbiological context. Genetically modified cells have been engineered to produce enzymes used in laundry detergent as well as medicines like insulin and human growth hormone. The process of genetic modification can involve the deletion and addition of genes (sometimes taken from other organisms) as well as the introduction of specific point mutations.

Where is GMO Used

The GMO that people are usually scared of and upset about are genetically modified crops. This controversial application of genetic engineering technology is used to make food crops more durable and more abundant in yield. Plants are often engineered to withstand the use of strong pesticides like Roundup (more on that later) or to increase their tolerance of harsh weather conditions. The technology has also been used with animals in a variety of ways. Some cows have been modified to produce more protein in their milk to better facilitate the production of cheese and goats have even been engineered to produce a pharmaceutical compound in their milk, which was approved by the FDA for medicinal use in 2009. Even the experimental Ebola treatment so talked about in recent months was actually developed using genetically modified tobacco and microorganisms.

Unbiased GMO Research is Hard to Find

So what are the unbiased, scientific facts about the safety of using genetic modification in our food? Well, it’s not as simple as you might think. The most commonly cited study, especially by critics of GMO, was performed in 2012 (type Seralini into your search engine, you’ll find it) and involved feeding genetically modified corn to lab rats over the course of two years in order to look at the health effects of taking GMO into the body on a daily basis.

Specifically, the corn was engineered to be tolerant to the herbicide Roundup and was treated with it. What ended up happening seemed to prove critics right: the rats developed tumors on their bodies over the course of the GM diet. However, there are some flaws in the experimental model of this study as well as the interpretation of the data.

First of all, the type of rats used in this study had an extreme tendency to develop cancerous tumors. Another study found that Sprague Dawley rats, the strain used by the designers of the first experiment mentioned, developed cancer in over 80% of males and over 70% of females within one lifespan (about two years). So, it seems that studying the potential negative health effects of a certain diet on rats that pretty are much guaranteed to develop cancer at some point seems unwise.

Issues With the Research

The experiment also tested rats in groups of ten, which is not a great enough number for a statistically accurate study of this kind. Removing statistical “noise” from the data would require that about 65 rats per group were examined to truly compare the rates of tumor formation and cancer risk. The fact that the development of tumors was the factor used to argue against genetic modification seems very unethical. To stay with the term – it was far from being unbiased.

This does not mean that GM foods are proven innocent; it just means that the data from this experiment can’t be trusted 100%. More research should be done in this area with different types of rats or other animals and with a better statistical design.

To be fair, the data from other experiments do not completely let GMOs off the hook with regards to potential negative effects. A study performed in 2013 looked at the effect of a GM diet (consisting of genetically modified soy and corn) on the health of pigs.

Some Research is Unbiased but Incomplete

The pigs fed GM food were more likely to have some differences in their gastric and reproductive systems, including a heavier uterus and severe stomach inflammation, which the non-GM fed pigs did not have.

While there was no difference in the rate at which the pigs died, it is important to keep in mind that the study was performed over the span of 22 weeks or so, which is the time it takes for a pig to go from weaning to slaughter, but much shorter than the full, natural lifespan of a pig. Many health issues from the diet can take a long time to develop, so we don’t know if the gastric differences seen in these pigs could have led to death at a later point if they were examined over the course of a lifetime.

This is one of the reasons that rats are so widely used for experiments: their lifetimes last about 2 years, so it is much easier to study the effects of lifelong exposure to a certain diet in these animals. The important point is to have unbiased research though.

Clearly, there is much more work to be done when it comes to researching GMO. Whatever the findings, we should always take care to look at the science and not the biased opinions involved with any study. Here’s hoping there will be more room for measured, balanced and unbiased opinions on GMO research before it’s too late.

About Suzanne Smith

Suzanne is a freelance writer, student, and healthcare professional who wasn’t born in Texas, but got there as fast as she could. Born in Heidelberg, Germany, Suzanne spent her childhood bouncing from one military base to another all over the world. When she doesn’t have her nose in a book, she can be seen indulging in her other passions, which include cooking, traveling, and writing. Her educational background includes Biology and English.

All Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.