Genetically Modified Lifeforms (GMOs)


I  remember a science class at school where we had a guest scientist come in and talk to us about GMO’s, what they are and why we make them. To me it made perfect sense to create an organism that was more nutritious, drought, flood or pest resilient. It seemed obvious to me that, if through techniques like selective breeding and animal husbandry   we could change a wolf into a corgi or an almost inedible legume into a staple food like the chickpea over the course hundreds if not thousands of generations. Then why couldn’t we, through the use of transgenesis create an actual super-food, something like golden Rice, engineered to have an improved nutritional value and tackle vitamin A deficiency or BT cotton with improved water efficacy and resistance to pesticides. Or, we could produce “Smart” Vaccines, bacterium that can feed and fuel our society? It just seemed to make sense.

In the 21st century we have around 7.8 billion inhabitants on Earth, due global climate change and the sheer number of mouths to feed, engineering food crops to have increased yield while requiring less resources makes sense to me. This stand point means I’m always a little perplexed as to some of the responses people have regarding GMO’s, I commented on it the other day noting that this discussion seems to have been overtaken by a shouting match between anti-GMO groups and anti-anti-GMO groups. Leaving the average punter scratching their head thinking. “What the hell is a GMO???”

Let’s find out a bit more about this, shall we?


What’s a GMO and how do you make one?


GMO, a Genetically Modified Organism is a well-defined and agreed upon definition. It goes something like this “a GMO is any organism be it plant, animal or microorganism, which has had its genetic material (DNA) altered in a way that is not naturally occurring. Typically, using genetic engineering techniques a GMO has had selected individual genes transferred between two or more organisms, this transfer can include between related and non-related species.”

Basically, using science an advantageous string of genetic code is removed from one organism and included in the code of another thereby creating a new organism with more advantageous characteristics. The Harvard University Science in the News blog by Chelsea Powell, and video from discover Monsanto both give good quick explanations of how this is done and are both worth a look.

The process of genetically engineering an organism is called Transgenesis i.e. the transfer of genes and it goes something like this (we’ll use a generic plant as the example, but its the same process for any organism.)

  1. Identify a genetic trait from plant A, which you believe to be an advantage to plant B. This could be a gene that makes the plant more resistant to drought, pests or other stressors.
  2. Isolate the genetic code responsible for said trait. Corn has more than 32,000 protein-coding genes so it’s no easy feat.
  3. Insert the new string of code into the genome of plant B. This can be done  using a gene gun, which literally shoots the DNA code into plant tissue or you can use a particulate strain of bacteria which naturally interfere with plant DNA.
  4. Grow the crop, confirm the genomic sequence, raise the crop through severally generations to confirm the desired trait is passed on.
  5. Test the new plant to see if the trait is advantageous.
  6. If successful, go through several years of testing and regulation to ensure the new plant is safe to use/consume/be introduced to environment.
  7. If unsuccessful… return to step 1 and start again.


Steps of Transgensis, adapted from ‘How to make a GMO’ by Chelsea Powell


All of this takes a lot of time, energy and money with the goal being a new organism that has an improved and measurable advantage over traditional crop.


When and why do you use them?

There’s predicted to be something in the area of 9-10 billion people on earth by the year 2050 (less any MARS and space colonies.) According to the World Bank we’ll need to be producing around 50% more food to accommodate the population. This could be a problem, if global climate change isn’t addressed quickly we can expect to see many regions of the world inhospitable to human life. With regular and continued heat waves, rising seawater, flash floods and torrential rains (you know, the effect of global climate change.)

While engineering plant crops to withstand those kinds of conditions may be possible, and perhaps necessary, a better idea would be to create plant crops and other GMO’s that can help us out now.

Researchers around the world are doing just that, developing new plant crops that have an increased yield, can adapt to harsher environments, require less water, are more nutritious or have other beneficial traits. You check out some of the genetically modified products that the CSIRO are developing. I also  shared a video earlier in the year about using algae to create, not only biofuel but food. Genetic manipulation could increase the efficiency of this process enormously, with the potential to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.

It can be argued that at this point in our history we need GMO’s to continue on as a species.


Are GMO crops safe for both the environment and human use?

I think this part is particularly susceptible to emotional arguments, they’re ‘not safe,’ ‘they’re not tested’ are the common cries,  and look,  fair enough, nobody wants to use ‘unsafe’ or ‘untested’ plant crops. The thing is though, they are tested, they are monitored and they are regulated far more than any other food product. Head to the Food Standards Australia/New Zealand website and you can find out the details regarding the sale and use of genetically modified food stuffs. These food safety standards are in place to ensure that our foods are safe to eat.

Aust/NZ Food Standards Code Standard 1.5.2: Food produced using gene technology.

 “Paragraphs 1.1.1—10(5)(c) and (6)(g) provide that a food for sale must not consist of, or have as an ingredient or a component, a food produced using gene technology, unless expressly permitted by this Code. This Standard contains the relevant permissions. Schedule 26 provides definitions of the terms ‘conventional breeding’, ‘line’ and ‘transformation event’, and lists approved foods produced using gene technology and any conditions for use of the food.”

You can also check out the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator which is the independent body tasked with administering the Gene Technology Act 2000. If you want to know what kind of regulations and conditions are required for GMO research and use in Australia you can click through the OGTR’s GMO tables and review what each research team is investigating, the risk assessments, the various notifications, licences and conditions for said licence.

Functions of the Australian Office of the Gene Technology Regulator

Continued monitoring and environmental risk assessments (ERAs) should be continuously completed and updated, while GM crops have been widely used for the last 10 years there is still not a real method for how to conduct or implement ERAs across multiple countries. There is also resent research suggesting that in some instances the adoption of GMO crops has led to an increase in pesticide use to combat resistant pest species.

However,  academic review also suggests that GM crops like maize, corn and soy are as safe and nutritious as their conventional counterparts. So, the need for further research is curtail.


Risk vs Reward

So, if there is a potential for a risk even though we haven’t precisely identified what it might be do we say, “That’s enough, stop there.” Or do we loo at the potential benefits that this technology could provide us and instead say. “What’s next? What else can we improve?” It’s a tricky one and you will come across some people are adamant they know the answer. I myself am not so sure, while I do believe that we should investigate and research this technology in an attempt to improve our worlds general standard of living. I also think we should do (and that we do) proceed carefully, with monitoring and constant review and that it’s important that we improve this step as well. Not just for the science or the environment but to improve peoples position of the technology, so  the general public know  the scientific community is doing thing by the book, ethically.

That’s my take.

So, what are your thoughts?

I’ve collected a range of articles, papers and a few blogs from credible sources to help explain what it’s all about, if you want to find out some more click through the links and bibliography. I hope this has been informative and you feel you know a little bit more about this incredibly complex topic.

If you think I’ve gotten something wrong or that you can explain it a bit better/clearer please contact me and let me know.


As always,

Ask your questions, discuss, support your opinions with evidence.







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