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Genetic Engineering

Thitirat Pongprajuc
November 21, 2018
Genetic engineering (GE) or genetic modification (GM) is “the direct and purposeful
alteration of an organism’s DNA, the basic genetic blueprints of a bacterium, plant, animal,
human, or other living organism to add or enhance a specific characteristic or trait”
(Franceschetti, 2013). The products of genetic engineering are known as GMOs (Genetically
Modified Organisms).
Genetic engineering has been widely used in agricultural and pharmaceutical industries.
The proponents of genetic engineering say that the genetic modification is the shortcut that could
solve many genetic problems that currently occur. For example, gene editing allows agricultural
scientists to convert an insecticide intolerant plant to an insecticide resistant plant to help farmers
reduce the use of pesticides. Also, correcting an improper gene consequence that produces a
genetic disease was a recent method to relieve suffer caused from the unfortunate condition that
some humans are born with. However, many people do not appreciate the express service of
gene modification because they are concerned that this genetic interference could result in
unpredictably negative consequences.
In a world with a rapidly increasing population, a higher demand for food, increasing
challenges due to climate change, and the desire to reduce the footprint of agriculture, plant
varieties need to change in order to face new realities and constraints that are developing in the
modern world. With these conditions, agricultural scientists have developed multiple approaches
to take advantage of scientific knowledge. Therefore, they engineer crops and vegetation to solve
problems created by adverse agricultural conditions.
One major advantage of GE is that it reduces the time it takes to develop a desired trait or
variety. For example, the laboratory gene editing for drought resistance may reduce the cost of
adaptation in the context of climate change. The drought tolerance trait allows farmers to grow
vegetation in abiotic stress conditions in which water is limited (Zilberman, Holland & Trilnick,
2018).
The most common reason that farmers adopt GMOs is that GMOs produce high yielding
and designer crops and vegetation. Farmers can grow plants that consumers are going to buy.
Researchers have found evidence that GMO produce which is sold in the market is generally
bigger in size, more vivid color, and has fewer or no seeds, the preferable characteristics
consumers would consider when buying products. Genetic engineering technology has provided
these traits and increased positive gains. According to Huso and Kellner, “farmers prefer to buy
seeds that provide benefit traits such as high yield,” (2014) so that farmers can enjoy more
economic benefits from harvesting from the high yielding seeds.
However, seed companies would not enjoy gaining small profits from selling seeds that
gives a high yield rate in every generation. Therefore, they alter the genes of the plant seeds to
give a lower yielding rate in the second generation in order to make farmers repurchase new
seeds every planting season. This intention of seed companies becomes controversial which the
opponents of GMOs use to argue that the real benefit of GM seeds belongs to the seed
companies not the farmers. Farmers and consumers enjoy a very small piece of pie in GM seed
technology.
Many concerns regarding agricultural GMOs are about the safety of transgenic
procedures and the unexpected side effects. Many fear that plants that have been engineered to
be toxic would result in negative consequences. As such BT (Bacillus thuringiensis), a gene
borrowed from the bacterium, has been inserted into a plant’s chromosome. The benefit of BT in
agricultural contexts is that BT produces a protein that destroys the digestive system of specific
insect pests. Having BT in DNA, the plant makes its own pesticide so when insects eat BT
plants, they die (Zilberman, Holland & Trilnick, 2018). This sounds alarming. While an
insecticide can be washed off the plant, the poisonous BT is actually inside the plant cell.
Consuming BT crops may lead to negative side effects in secondary consumers such as animals
and humans. A study of the Center of Food Safety (centerforfoodsfety.org) reported that rats
consuming BT potatoes showed significant harmful effects on organ development, body
metabolism and immune function (Huso & Kellner, 2014). However, a negative effect of BT
plants on human health has not yet been found (Zilberman, Holland & Trilnick, 2018).
Additionally, some plants such as corn and soybeans have been genetically modified for
resistance to an herbicide called glyphosate. Pamela Ronald, a professor of Plant Pathology at the
University of California, Davis, has indicated that “80-90 percent of cotton, soybeans and sugar
beets grown in the U.S. are engineered to glyphosate resistant because glyphosate is much less
harmful to humans than other herbicides” (2013). Therefore, farmers rely on glyphosate to kill
weeds without harming the crops and not significantly harming humans. This leads to the
assumption that using only glyphosate is considered to leave fewer chemical substances than
using several herbicides combined to fight weeds.
Even though there is no significant evidence of insects developing glyphosate tolerance
after they make contact with glyphosate genes added to crops, unwanted consequences may
occur anytime. There is possibility that insects may develop glyphosate resistance like weeds
develop herbicide resistance in non-GMO conditions. The possible solution if that happened is to
optimize the balance between resistance build-up and yields. Researchers suggest that weed
management and selective herbicide are strategies to maintain effectiveness of herbicide
tolerance (Zilberman, Holland & Trilnick, 2018).
Another concern regarding the genetically modified glyphosate is that it would wipe out
all the bees from the ecosystem. Which results in thousands of plant deaths, the resultant impact
being the starving of humans. A study about GM food and GMOs of university of Southern
Connecticut State University has found an effect of a GM plant in bees (Nodoushani, Sintay &
Stewart, 2015):
The genetic modification of the plant leads to the concurrent genetic modification
of the flower pollen. When the flower pollen becomes genetically modified or
sterile, the bees will potentially go malnourished and die of illness due to the lack of
nutrients and the interruption of the digestive capacity of what they feed on through
the summer and over the winter hibernation process.
However, a research study from the University of California, Berkley has confirmed that bees are
unaffected by glyphosate GMOs (Zilberman, Holland & Trilnick, 2018) which means that the
valuable insects, bees, are not killed by consuming nectar of glyphosate GMOs. Genetic
modification is not only used in agriculture, but it is also adopted in therapeutic treatment to
protect and cure diseases.
Genetic Engineering has been used in pharmaceutical drugs and treatments for many
diseases such as the Hepatitis B vaccine in gene therapy, genetically modified bacteria to
produce insulin to cure diabetes, and human growth hormone to treat some forms of dwarfism
(Goldbas, 2014; Huso & Kellner, 2014). Genetic Engineering increases ways for humans to have
a healthier and longer life. However, perceptions of GMOs in a medical context are somewhat
negative. Why would it be?
Firstly, benefits of genetic engineering have to be discussed. Genetic Engineering has
been used for a long time dating back to 1982 when the first synthetic human insulin was
approved for public sale (Watts, 2013). It has been prescribed to cure many diabetic patients for
almost four decades. Last year, Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the Oregon Health and Science
University had successfully edited human embryos for the first time in the United States. The
objective of this study was to show that scientists have an ability to eradicate or correct genes
that inherited diseases such as sickle cell anemia and thalassemia. However, the embryo was not
implanted because none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than few days. (Cha,
2017).
According to the MIT Technology Review, genetic engineering cured the sickle cell
anemia by using the gene editing technique called CRISPR. CRISPR is a system that guides a
protein called Cas9 to cut DNA, which means editing genes. Sickle cell anemia occurs from one
misspelled letter of DNA. CRISPR can corrects the misspelled letter as a genetic treatment for
sickle cell anemia (Cha, 2017).
There are several reports saying that there are risks of consuming GMO food. Some
scientists mention that genetically modified food can increase risk of allergic reaction in some
people. They assume that allergic reaction is possibly the result of gene transfer that insert genes
from foods to which those people are allergic (Huso & Kellner, 2014). For example, a gene from
a nut was engineered into soybeans, and people who are allergic to nuts consumed these
modified soybeans. Those people would have serious allergic reaction to GM soybeans, which
never occurred when they consumed non-GMO soybeans.
Another fear regarding GMOs in medicine is the effect of genetically modified foods
which contain “antibiotic resistance markers,” a medicine meant to cure diseases that are
currently treated with antibiotic. Now, there is no antibiotic resistance being used, but some
scientists may research this subject. Currently, a study of the British Medical Association has
reported that the ban on the use of antibiotic resistance marker gene in genetically modified food
should be imposed because the use of it will be a major threat to public health in the 21st century
(Huso & Kellner, 2014).
In conclusion, Genetic Engineering and Genetic Modified Organisms have benefits that
humans can use in many ways. They help humans improve the quality of life in both agricultural
and medical contexts. GMOs have proven positive effects such as high yielding vegetation,
insecticide resistance and herbicide tolerance in agricultural settings, therapeutic drugs and
vaccines to protect and cure diseases, and gene editing to extricate embryos from wrong
sequenced genes in a medical context. Genetic engineering, however, still has some challenges in
overcoming its ambiguousness about possible negative consequences. Moreover, the trials and
implementation of GE and GMO may cross the ethical line which not many people would want
to risk. If used appropriately, they can relieve much human suffering and concerns, whether it is
due to poverty, malnutrition, or disease. The most important issue is how safe are GE and
GMOs? Research and regulation are needed before applying any new GMO trials because, again,
there is no study that proves GMOs are absolutely dangerous. Mostly, there are only studies
suggesting that GMOs “might” lead to unpleasant effects. Therefore, humans should try to
explore more about Genetic Engineering because it has potential to solve some serious problems.
Literature Cited
Cha, E. E. (2017, August 2). First human embryo editing experiment in U.S. ‘corrects’ gene for
heart condition. The Washington Post.

David Zilberman, Tim G. Holland, & Itai Trilnick. (2018). Agricultural GMOs—What We
Know and Where Scientists Disagree. Sustainability, Vol 10, Iss 5, p 1514 (2018), (5),
1514.

Franceschetti, D. R. (2013). Applied Science (Vol. [First edition]). Ipswich, Mass: Salem Press.

Goldbas, A. (2014). GMOs: What Are They? International Journal of Childbirth Education,
29(3), 20–24.

Huso D. R., Kellner J. Know More About GMOs. Mother Earth Living. 2014;2(6):74-77.

Nodoushani O, Sintay J, Stewart C. (2015). Genetically Engineered Food and Genetically


Modified Organisms. Competition Forum. 2015;13(1):136-141.

Ronald, P. (2013). THE TRUTH ABOUT GMOs. (cover story). Boston Review, 38(5), 16–32.

Watts, C. P. D. . B. A. S. . B. S. (2013). Genetically Modified Organisms. Salem Press


Encyclopedia of Science.