Every earthly organism has its good and bad points. Even bacteria, which are the infamous source of countless fatal illnesses, contain valuable traits that have the potential to avail mankind. The idea of harvesting only the benefits of these organisms has given rise to a new field of science involving genetically modified organisms. GMOs, as they are called, allow scientists to build the “perfect microbial machine,” which combines the best capabilities of each organism into one super organism. The positive impacts of this technology are astounding and innumerable. If allowed to progress, genetically modified organisms could revolutionize all areas of science.
Although the idealistic concept seems perfect, GMOs have been the subject of intense ethical debate, mostly due to the problems involved in its implementation. Take the example of the asphalt-eating bacteria, an aide to construction workers and builders. At first glance, it appears only as a beneficial organism. This microbe, however, also has the potential to cause significant damage to roads, such as aggravating already present road cracks.
Furthermore, when scientists create GMOs, they are not simply engineering a static individual that, once produced, will stay in a certain form until death. Rather, they are engineering organisms that have the capability to mutate, to alter in genetic structure. In fact, there is the possibility that the super paint-eating or rubber-degrading strains of the asphalt-eating bacteria may undergo mutations that will allow them to attack houses, cars, and machinery - causing unstoppable devastation to society.
Another problem occurs when scientists engineer microorganisms to degrade xenobiotic compounds - man-made compounds that linger hazardously in the environment. A GMO that efficiently removes these dangerous compounds from the environment appears to be a must-have. However, this process, one that would take many hundreds of years in nature, is actually problematic when dealt with by GMOs. Since these xenobiotic compounds are toxic, the GMO, itself, is often killed in the degradation process. This causes increased health problems because the intermediary by-product is highly hazardous. A well-known example of this is the anaerobic biotransformation of trichloroethylene. Scientists found that GMOs only have the ability to transform trichloroethylene to vinyl chloride before being killed by the toxicity of the vinyl chloride. Thus, in trying to rid trichloroethylene, vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen and an even more dangerous toxin is formed and left undegradable in the environment. After realizing this, GMOs stopped being used in the degradation of trichloroethylene; however, this lesson learned poses a important argument that shows the risks of GMO implementation.
DNA transfer between altered and non-altered organisms is another rare, but dangerous possibility. DNA transfer can occur between natural bacteria via viruses to bacteria of other species and genera, an action that, as suggested by the name, transfers genetic material from one species to another. This is a rare occurrence, but if it were to happen with a GMO, there would be negative consequences because of unexpected changes in the genetic sequencing of previously stable species. A strain of sweet potato whitefly (Bemisia tabaci) that turned into a super bug around 1991, destroyed around 200 million Californian crops that year. Additionally, single-gene changes that occur through these gene transfers can make a previously non-pathogenic organism pathogenic. A grape pathogen with limited range became a pathogen with wide-range because of a single-gene transfer. Houseflies and anopheline mosquitoes also developed resistance to certain insecticides because of a singe-gene transfer.
But besides technical problems, there are also socioeconomic effects involved with introducing GMOs to society. The Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), for example, is a genetically modified hormone, which increases milk production in cattle by around forty percent. Because this growth hormone increases milk production, it also decreases the number of dairy farmers necessary. In essence, hardworking human labor will be outsourced to million of microorganisms. The economy will be most damaged in a country where a large percentage of the populations depends on the one process that GMOs might dominate. In Ghana, for example, over twenty percent of the work force is in cocoa production. With the use of GMOs and simple carbohydrates, synthetic alternatives to cocoa, coffee, and tea can be easily produced, taking away the jobs and livelihoods of people around the world.
But then again, to the consumer or to the country in famine, these changes might be more advantageous than problematic. Genetically modified foods can relieve the prevailing malnutrition issue, particularly that of third world countries. Children and adults alike are severely suffering from malnutrition and anorexia because of the lack of nourishing foods. This concern can be solved easily by utilizing GMO technology. Golden rice is one example of a GMO that has been successfully incorporated in societies dependent on rice. The plain rice that many people rely on as their staple diet does not have an adequate amount of nutrients. Because of the lack of Vitamin A in rice, Vitamin A deficiency is a primary cause of blindness in these countries. Golden rice, developed by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Institute for Plant Sciences, contains an unusually high content of vitamin A, among other nutrients.
Scientists also are developing a process to reduce costs of producing medicines and vaccines by developing edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes. Through this new development, it will be easier to ship, store, and administer these new vaccines to people in third world countries. These new advancements would also drastically decrease prices of generic medications prescribed by doctors and make them more readily available to financially-challenged individuals in the United States.
Along with alleviating hunger, GMOs can be produced with desired traits such as drought resistance, disease prevention, herbicide tolerance, and more; in addition, due to modern technological advancements, plants can be grown virtually anywhere. Millions of people would be saved from the fatal grasp of anorexia or malnutrition; moreover, we would boost the survival rate of babies in third world countries.
In the end, it is difficult to decide whether further research and implementation of GMOs should be performed. They are perfect in so many ways: cheap, effective, (in most cases) harmless: to the key to resolving many problems that plague society today. Yet, at the same time, there are risks to releasing GMOs, making their debut in society linked to questions of ethics. GMOs are an ideal solution to many of the world’s problems, but only in ideal circumstances. Do we risk harms like that of the asphalt-eating bacteria, the biotransformation of trichloroethylene, or the sweet potato whitefly super bug while we strive to make GMOs practical? The noble task of relieving famine may be at hand with the aid of genetically modified foods, but can we endure the potential consequences? There are no clear answers to these questions now, but questions never stopped the progress of science, and the enormous potential of genetically modified organisms is just too momentous to contain.
-Marci Rosenberg and Connie Liu
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. A GMO is any organism, be it a plant, animal, or bacteria, whose genetic sequence has been changed from its natural state. Sometimes these changes come from the addition of DNA from one species into another species’ genetic code. This newly combined DNA strand is called recombinant DNA. The organism that has DNA made from two different species is referred to as a transgenic organism, whereas the GMO that is made up of DNA from only one species is a cisgenic organism. The first transgenic organism was created in 1973, when an E. coli bacterium was genetically modified to express a Salmonella gene
This genetic alteration can be done in several different ways. In the case of transgenic organisms, there are two main methods that are used to add a section one organism’s genetic code to another. In some cases, the DNA section that is to be inserted is attached to a virus, and the virus transfers the section to the desired destination. This way, the two sections of genetic code can be combined. DNA can also be physically be inserted by use of a gene gun, also called a biolistic particle delivery system. The gun inserts a heavy metal coated with the DNA that is to be transferred into the other organism’s genetic code.
There is now a myriad of different GMOs being produced in the world, all with very different applications. The human protein antithrombin III has been injected into the milk-producing genes of goats, the result being that the goats produce the protein in their milk, and so it can be collected and given as medicine to those that have an antithrombin III deficiency.
Though GMOs have already endured numerous scientific breakthroughs its implementation is still awaiting approval from those with ethical concerns.