Say the term “genetically modified organism,” or GMO, and you’re bound to get some strong opinions.
But what is it? And should we be afraid?
Like it or not, humans have been in the business of genetically changing organisms since we first started domesticating them around 12,000 BC. Simply put, favorable traits were identified in one generation of plants or animals—higher fertility, bigger size, faster maturity—and those individuals were selectively bred to produce the next generation.
Fast forward to Charles Darwin, who was keenly observant of this in the 1800s as he was pondering his theory of the origin of species. In his time, pigeon and dog breeding were hot pursuits. It was not lost on him how disparate looking dogs like Saint Bernards and beagles originated from the same wolf-like ancestor. Humans decided they liked some combination of traits and then bred the dogs accordingly. Without humans, it’s safe to say that something like the teacup poodle would not exist.
So we’ve been genetically modifying other living things for millennia. What’s different about today? The tools we use to modify genomes. Now, not only can we genetically modify organisms through selective breeding on the farm, we can also genetically engineer them through molecular techniques in the lab.
Not only can we genetically modify organisms through selective breeding on the farm, we can also genetically engineer them through molecular techniques in the lab.
This has radically changed the pace of genetic modification. Today, we don’t have to breed for desired traits over many generations, we can directly insert genes to change genomes in only one generation. Even more intense, we can also transfer genes across species. Take the GloFish, for instance. Scientists extracted a gene originally from a jellyfish that produces a bright green fluorescent color, inserted into a zebrafish and, voila! The neon-looking GloFish was created—the world’s first genetically engineered pet.
The Monsanto corporation has long been at the forefront of genetic engineering when it comes to the plants we eat. They’ve been both praised and bashed for this. Some think they are leaders in finding new ways to feed a growing global population. Others have derided them for producing “franken-foods” that wreak havoc on the environment and our bodies.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I headed to the Monsanto laboratories. As an ecologist, I’ve been concerned about the ecological impacts of genetically engineered organisms, much of which we don’t know. After all, transgenic crops have only been widely used for a couple of decades. But I also know that we must innovate ways to produce food to feed a swelling human population in the midst of a changing climate.
I was surprised about what I found. Monsanto is using its biotech muscle to not only genetically engineer crops, but also to beef up its traditional cross-breeding activities. Basically, Monsanto scientists use biotechnology methods to peer into the DNA sequences of plants and identify which ones have the right stuff they are looking for—better flavors, increased nutrition, longer shelf-life.
Once they find those plants—the needles in the haystack—they use them in good old-fashioned breeding efforts. This system can cut years off of what is typically a long process in achieving a reliable new variety with traits of interest. In other words, they are taking the techniques used by farmers for millennia, speeding up the process and making it more more effective with a little help from technology. The result is a new line of fruits and veggies with a suite of favorable characteristics, but without any direct insertion or manipulation of genetic material.
So what to make of this? Maybe this modernized cross-breeding technique will be more palatable for many people who are concerned about the health impacts of genetically engineered foods. As for me, I'll be sure to keep a close eye on Monsanto's turbo-charged cross breeding efforts. They may very well be part of the solution for feeding an ever-expanding global population.
Watch “TechKnow” Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT.