GMO Series part 1: The Science behind GMOs

This photo is courtesy of Alexis Baden-Mayer
This photo is courtesy of Alexis Baden-Mayer

Pick up a package of your favorite snack, open it up, and dig in! Now would it shock you if you found out that the bag of chips or pretzels in your hand contains advanced biotechnology?

According to the Institute for Responsible Technology, 94 percent of the soy and 88 percent of the corn grown in the US in 2011 was genetically modified. So it’s a safe bet that some of that found its way into your snack, but have you ever wondered how they do it?

First, let’s start off with a history lesson.

Humans have been manipulating our crops and livestock for centuries, but this tinkering used to be done through selective breeding. Our ancestors took an individual that had the desired characteristics and crossed it with itself – in the case of some plants – or bred it with another individual of the same species, with the desired characteristics.

In the 1980s and ‘90s though, with the advent of molecular technology, we began manipulating our food stock at a much more basic level. Thus GMOs were born.

According to the book, “Essential Environment: the Science behind the Stories”, genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are organisms that have one or more transgenes. Transgenes are genes from one organism, which are spliced into another organism’s genome.

Well how does that work?

Genes are made of DNA. DNA is found in all living things. It’s basically what makes you, you, a cat, cat, and a single celled protist swimming under a microscope, a single celled protist swimming under a microscope.

DNA is made up of a universal code that specifies what proteins to make. Proteins are really the workhorse of life. They do everything in our bodies. Without your proteins, you would not even exist!

Because of the code’s universality, it is possible for us to take a gene that codes for a protein, like the proteins found in Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria found in soil that produces a natural insecticide, and put them into a completely unrelated species like corn. This new Bt corn can now makes its own insecticide in every one of its cells.

You don’t just have to stop there. You can make crops that are resistant to disease, drought and herbicides. You can increase their size, or starch content or oil content. If you can find a gene that codes for the trait you want, you can splice it into the crop’s genome.

So when you open up a bag of chips, you are eating innovative, cutting edge technology and you don’t even have to pay extra!

Written by: Allyson Ernst

Photo License: Creative Commons

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