Do we need GMOs? About the world food crisis and changing attitudes.

Genetic modification is highly controversial. During the process of our project we have discovered quite how important opinions surrounding GMOs are. We have found companies which cannot sponsor us as they do not attach their name to anything related to genetic modification.

Yet we live in a rapidly changing world. Technology may be progressing faster than ever, but perhaps this is because we are rapidly running out of time and resources in many respects. “Necessity is the mother of invention” are words from Plato and it might be the time to ask whether genetic modification has indeed become a necessity.

It is well known that food distribution across the world is shockingly uneven. In the UK, more than two thirds of adults are now considered overweight or obese yet it is estimated nearly 870 million people around the world suffer chronic undernourishment. But even if redistribution of resources was a realistic option, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN has estimated that if population growth rate continues as it is, food growth will need to increase by a massive 70% by 2050.

There simply isn’t space for this.

So what are the answers? Meat consumption is highly inefficient. A recent Horizon series is tackling the issue as to whether it could become sustainable and the outlook doesn’t look good. Yet despite this, the demand for meat continues to rise. Unless our way of eating suddenly undergoes a massive change, genetic modification might become the only viable option. And this might not be as big a change as some people think. Nearly all corn and soybeans grown in the US are currently genetically modified and these are major agricultural crops. Globally, one tenth of the world’s crop-land is used for GM agriculture. The number of meals consumed that contain GM ingredients may well have made it into the trillions over the past few decades. The European Commission has funded 130 projects on the safety of GM crops, none of which have found associated risks. It is true that there are unknowns involved in the production of anything genetically modified. Perhaps it is just as well that the potential for social outrage ensures precautions when introducing anything genetically modified into the environment. But the knee jerk reaction to genetic modification has denied people in some of the World’s most malnourished countries potentially life-changing innovations such as golden rice. Where is the morality in this?

There is no claim that GMOs will provide the magic solve-all solution to the world’s food crisis. But the truth is, there is no magic solution. So many of the problems we face today show how short-term solutions appeal to us. So long as we live in comfort today, it’s not our place to worry about tomorrow. Whether you believe genetic modification of crops is a viable and promising solution, or not, there is no denying that it is time for our attitudes to world problems to change on a large scale.

iGEM outreach and human practice projects are often about educating and changing people’s attitudes. Have you come across people in your work/project or in everyday life that you think need to change their attitude? Leave us a comment with your experience!

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What is Genetic Engineering?

And why is it so useful?

Genetic engineering, or genetic modification (GM) , is a faster way to produce new varieties of plant, animal or bacteria than selective breeding. It involves the artificial transfer of selected genes from one living organism to another living organism, which need not be of the same species. Transferring genes in this way can produce genetically modified organisms with different characteristics. In a genetic engineering programme, certain features of a plant or animal will be selected. For example, genes allowing resistance to herbicides, frost damage or disease may be transferred to crop plants.1

How is it done?

1) First, find an organism that naturally contains the desired trait.

2) The DNA is extracted from that organism. This is like taking out the entire cookbook.

3) The one desired gene (recipe) must be located and copied from thousands of genes that were extracted. This is called gene cloning.

4) The gene may be modified slightly to work in a more desirable way once inside the recipient organism.

5) The new gene(s), called a transgene is delivered into cells of the recipient organism. This is called transformation. The most common transformation technique uses a bacteria that naturally genetically engineer plants with its own DNA. The transgene is inserted into the bacteria, which then delivers it into cells of the organism being engineered. Another technique, called the gene gun method, shoots microscopic gold particles coated with copies of the transgene into cells of the recipient organism. With either technique, genetic engineers have no control over where or if the transgene inserts into the genome. As a result, it takes hundreds of attempts to achieve just a few transgenic organisms.

6) Once a transgenic organism has been created, traditional breeding is used to improve the characteristics of the final product. So genetic engineering does not eliminate the need for traditional breeding. It is simply a way to add new traits to the pool.2

Genetic Engineering is reported very badly in the news. But the truth is that it benefits every one of us in one way or another, and only a handful of people realize this. Many drugs that save human lives are produced this way, alongside plants and foods used to feed the growing population of the Earth. Here are some of the products developed through genetic engineering. Take a minute to think about life without them:

 

Insulin

Natural insulin can be taken from the pancreas of a pig or cow. It is used to treat diabetes but is limited in supply and doesn’t suit all people. Modern practice is to create insulin synthetically, using genetically modified (GM) bacteria. The gene for insulin secretion is cut from a length of human DNA and inserted into the DNA of a bacterium. The bacterium is then cultivated and soon there are millions of bacteria producing human insulin. It is easier to create high quantities of insulin. It is less likely to cause an adverse reaction. It overcomes ethical concerns from vegetarians and others.3

Golden rice

Scientists have added a gene to wild rice that makes it produce beta carotene. This changes the colour of the wild rice to a golden colour. Beta carotene is needed by humans in order to make Vitamin A. The advantage of golden rice is that it can be used in areas where Vitamin A deficiency is common and so can help prevent blindness3. Millions of people in Africa and other rural regions of the world benefit from this rice every day.

Herbicide resistant crops

Scientists have added genes to crop plants that make them resistant to herbicides. This reduces the quantity of herbicide that needs to be used3. It’s beneficial to the environment, and the people taking care of the crops. It also help increase yield.

Many other drugs, plants and GM animals are produced using the power of genetic engineering. Among them are cows that give human-like milk containing antibodies and other substances to boost the immunity of infants, environmentally friendly pigs, proteins expressed and collected from sheep’s milk. So next time you read an article presenting Genetic Engineering as the worst thing on the planet Earth, think about how it has benefited your life!

 

References

1.http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/science/add_ocr_gateway/living_growing/newgenesrev2.shtml

2. http://agbiosafety.unl.edu/basic_genetics.shtml

3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/science/add_edexcel/cells/dnarev6.shtml

What is iGEM?

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iGEM is an international synthetic biology competition, aimed at University students. Competitors aim to  design and build biological systems and operate them into a living cell. Teams normally aim to solve a problem, the University of York’s previous idea was to use bacteria to power batteries. The team successfully engineered bacteria to produce electrons – the first step in producing a battery and were awarded with a gold medal for their efforts!!! (http://2013.igem.org/Team:York_UK)

Keep checking the blog for iGEM York’s 2014 ideas.