Saturday, November 26, 2016

Genetically Modified Organism (GMO): Neo-Frankenstein Monster

Dr Abe V Rotor


A Genetically Modified Organism (or GMO) is a result of rapid genetic pooling or buildup of desirable traits by means of genetic engineering, rather than through the conventional method.

The conventional agricultural breeding methods are tedious, and subject to uncertainty. Today’s biotechnology opened a frontier whereby the genes of organisms can be transferred and combined according to the traits one wishes to combine. It is actually opening a floodgate of possibilities, spectacularly including cross-species or cross-phyla transfer of genes. This could mean a firefly gene implanted in a rat can make the rodent glow in the dark.

All these scenarios have their early beginnings with the DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) model proposed by F.H.C. Crick and J.D. Watson in 1953, the two later sharing the Nobel Prize in biology. So precise is the double helix model that with modern tools, one can insert a portion of the genetic material from one organism onto another, causing the latter to carry a desired trait. Thus a gene of a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, spliced into the genetic structure of corn produced the Bt corn, the first genetically modified crop. The plant is claimed to be caterpillar-resistant since B. thuringiensis causes disease in caterpillars that destroy corn. Protein gene of one legume can increase the protein nutrients of another. Beta-carotene gene from daffodils, when introduced into rice produces golden rice.

The questions are, when introduced, what extent are the modifications? What kinds and directions will they go? Could an organism, reaching a level of modification, lose its genetic identity, thereby becoming alien to its adopted environment?

We ask these questions in the light of the following premises:

1. A single gene may control one trait, but where there are more traits controlled by multiple, blending genes, the process can get out of hand. The collective expression of modified gene combinations, not to mention the effects of disturbed loci in the genes, can be dangerous. It will take time for us to know the adverse effects of GMO on human beings and the environment.

2. Every trait of an organism, in one way or the other, has an affect on the environment, and vice versa. This means that if the protein is elevated, the higher protein levels will need more nitrogen, thereby requiring fertilizer subsidy. An increase in milk output means more cattle feeds, and antibiotic input to protect the animal from milk production-related stress. There is a saying in ecology that there is no such thing as “free lunch”.

3. Ecologically, how will a GMO relate to the natural members of the environment? How will the new organism now fit into the ecosystem in which its “parents” were once a part, integrally built by laws governing seres, niches and evolution? We may be only interested in how the organism serve our purpose for the moment, but unaware of its usefulness or destructiveness, when left alone in its own environment.

4. Genetic engineering may increase the number of plants and animals that now depend entirely on man’s care and attention. Many genetically altered breeds and varieties may no longer be able to live and prosper in the open. This is indeed an antithesis of natural farming.  

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