Lab to Farm to Table: Some GMO Basics
“What’s a GMO?” “You mean, HMO?” “Is that like MSG or something?” “Oh, I thought that was hydrogenated oil.” “Haven’t we always cross-bred seeds?”
-Time to answer some basic, important questions about GMOs we’ve had and also heard along the way….
Originally, we had planned to dress as a scientist and a farmer, stand in front of a whiteboard, and use our less-than-mediocre dry-erase marker art skills to explain the difference between traditional, selective breeding and the use of genetic engineering technology. Oh, we laughed at the thought of filming this section, but knew that it would help not just others deconstruct the science part of this, but also ourselves! We are graduate students in social work who have now been thrown into a world of science and farming! Anyway, with time constraints and the change of our focus to smaller clips and such, we traded in the costumes and took the less theatrical route instead. Plus, we found resources online which already explained this for others; we are posting this blog so that others can have some fun checking this science stuff out, too. Our favorite find so far has been an interactive tool through PBS’s Harvest of Fear special investigating the use of genetic modification in crop breeding. Their “engineer a crop”online tool allows you to walk through both processes (selective v. transgenic) to see the steps necessary using each method of breeding. After trying out some hands on seed saving vs. seed creating, it was also helpful for us to learn which genes are being inserted into crops we could consume, so we found some summaries worth checking out at the http://www.responsibletechnology.org/.
An excerpt from their FAQ list includes the following list of lab creations:
“It is now possible for plants to be engineered with genes taken from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans. Scientists have worked on some interesting combinations:
- Spider genes were inserted into goat DNA, in hopes that the goat milk would contain spider web protein for use in bulletproof vests.
- Cow genes turned pigskins into cowhides.
- Jellyfish genes lit up pigs’ noses in the dark.
- Arctic fish genes gave tomatoes and strawberries tolerance to frost.
- Potatoes that glowed in the dark when they needed watering.
- Human genes were inserted into corn to produce spermicide.”
“Current field trials include:
- Corn engineered with human genes (Dow)
- Sugarcane engineered with human genes (Hawaii Agriculture Research Center)
- Corn engineered with jellyfish genes (Stanford University)
- Tobacco engineered with lettuce genes (University of Hawaii)
- Rice engineered with human genes (Applied Phytologics)
- Corn engineered with hepatitis virus genes (Prodigene)”
It’s a lot to wrap your head around at first. It gets easier, this I promise! Some other basics helpful to us included going back to Biology 101 and learning about genes.
First: “Every plant and animal is made of cells, each of which has a center called a nucleus. Inside every nucleus there are strings of DNA, half of which is normally inherited from the mother and half from the father. Short sequences of DNA are called genes. These genes operate in complex networks that are finely regulated to enable the processes of living organisms to happen in the right place and at the right time.”
Second: The animal or plant cells don’t just naturally open up to the invasion during this process. They have the same natural barriers of protection as we do to ward off intruders. “Because living organisms have natural barriers to protect themselves against the introduction of DNA from a different species, genetic engineers must force the DNA from one organism into another.” Key word: Force.
Third: How is the DNA of one species Forced into the DNA of another? Again, The IRT(Institute of Responsible Technology) breaks it down easily for us:
- “Using viruses or bacteria to “infect” animal or plant cells with the new DNA.
- Coating DNA onto tiny metal pellets, and firing it with a special gun into the cells.
- Injecting the new DNA into fertilized eggs with a very fine needle.
- Using electric shocks to create holes in the membrane covering sperm, and then forcing the new DNA into the sperm through these holes.”
Can you see why we ditched the costumes and whiteboard now? I am not sure my stick figure drawings of a complex insertion of DNA would have made any of this clearer. 🙂 This is a lot to take in if we think of how this is just some of the basic science behind genetic engineering. Seems awful complicated and invasive to me. What do others think? Here’s a quick video putting this all into perspective for us. We promise it’s much better than our whiteboard science demo would have been.
In short…No, a GMO is Not like an HMO, MSG, or hydrogenated oil. It’s also a new form of gene selection and breeding which adds a scientific lab to our farm to table model.
We encourage others to make up their own mind on the use of GE, but believe everyone has the RIGHT to First- know that this IS now happening within our food supply and Second- to clearly understand the science behind it.