Genetically Modified Organisms

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Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO are those living organisms—bacteria, plants or animals, whose genetic make up has been transformed through a special set of techniques. The process changes the genetic content or the DNA sequence of a cell, group of cells or the entire organism. The techniques involved collectively are called ‘genetic engineering’. Combining genes from different organisms is called ‘Recombinant DNA technology’. The DNA molecules from different sources are combined into one molecule. Thus the traits or ‘phenotype’ of the organism gets altered.


[edit] Types of Human Genetic Modification

There are two kinds of genetic modification:

  • Somatic: In somatic gene therapy a gene or gene segment is introduced in particular and specific organs or tissues to cure an existing disorder.
  • Human Germline Genetic Modification (HGGM): Here the gene or gene segment is introduced to the egg or sperm – also called the germline cells. This would mean a permanent alteration of future generations. Research in this process is still at a nascent stage.

[edit] History of GMO

It began, in 1973, with the formation of the first recombinant bacteria: the E. coli with a ‘frog gene’. In the following years, Herbert Boyer formed the company Genentech which in 1978 produced a strain of E.coli which could make the human protein insulin.

The first transgenic plant - a tobacco plant resistant to an antibiotic - was created in 1983. It was another ten years before the first commercialisation of a GM plant in the United States - a delayed-ripening tomato - and another two years (1996) before a GM product - tomato paste - hit UK supermarket shelves.

1996 was also the year that the EU approved the importation and use of Monsanto's Roundup Ready soya beans in foods for people and feed for animals. These beans have been modified to survive being sprayed with the Roundup herbicide that is applied to a field to kill weeds.

[edit] Genetically Modified Foods and Products

Certain medicines, vaccines, foods, food ingredients and feeds have been genetically modified. Finding certain trait associated genes like resistance to insects or increased nutritive values and combining these genes in the organism has in recent times been used extensively in both research and commercially. In 2003, 67.7 million hectares of land in 18 countries were planted genetically modified crops. Primary amongst them were insecticide resistant soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola. Rice crops with increased irons and vitamins have been grown commercially too as has plants which could survive extreme weather conditions.

[edit] Benefits of GMO

Crops have benefited with enhanced taste and quality of food, increased nutrients, yields, and resistance to disease, pests and insecticides and also a reduced maturation period.

Animals which have been modified genetically have shown increased resistance to diseases, increased productivity, and hardiness and have even been feed efficient.

Environmentally, herbicides and insecticides have been made less dangerous and toxic with genetic modification. There has also been a better conservation of soil, water and energy.

Socially, there has been increased food for growing populations.

[edit] Controversies

Some groups believe that GMO meddles and interferes with nature in its biological state or processes. There are others who think that modern science is not yet equipped to fully understand the extent of potential negative effect of genetic manipulation. There is also concern about the proliferation and increase of GMO and the unpredicted global and local ramifications this may have. Concerns have been raised about mixing genes amongst species and thereby tampering with nature. Groups have called for a mandatory labelling of GM food and products. The issue of GMO is involved in a strong debate and several there is no international consensus about it. Some states in the US have banned production of GMO; the first to do so was Mendocino County, California in 2004. There is also a fear that the richer, advanced countries will dominate food production and the developing countries will become more dependent on industrialised countries.

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