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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Let’s take the M out of GMOs

The genetically modified organism debate has been raging for decades with critics screaming about the dangerous consequences.

The critics claim that transferring genes from one organism to another, especially in crops, can have hazardous side effects for the host plant and the people and animals consuming it. While we could spend all day arguing about the merits and scientific basis of this opinion, what if there was a new solution to get rid of the transgenic part of GMOs?

Meet one of the newest developments to GMO technology: genetically edited organisms.

In contrast, transgenic GMOs take genes from one organism and put them into another, whereas genetic editing directly alters the DNA of an organism itself, without utilizing another organism at all.

Precise genome editing can modify an organism’s genetic makeup in order to amplify desirable traits or suppress unwanted ones, drawing from it’s pre-existing genes, making them more natural.

This technology could be used to make fruits with higher vitamin content or vegetables that stay fresh longer, simply by editing certain sequences. There are projects in place to create apples that last longer even after being sliced and bananas that have a higher vitamin A content.

Unlike transgenic GMOs, bacterium is no longer required to introduce foreign gene sequences into the cells because the genes are already present. Essentially, genetically edited organisms, or GEOs, remove the middleman when it comes to genetically modifying certain organisms.

Could this start a trend or shift from transgenic GMOs to non-transgenic GEOs? Is editing the new modification?

Many believe this is the case. GEOs have the potential to soothe adamant organic supporters who want their food to be natural. Let’s take some of their biggest points against transgenics and see how GEOs size up.

1. Some say that changing the genetic makeup of a plant with foreign DNA can cause it to express certain characteristics in unintended ways, making it harmful to those who consume it, whether by default or due to an allergy of a protein produced by the foreign species.

First of all, as Caitlyn Hall, a UA Biosystems Engineering graduate, wrote in an email interview, “GMOs are widely not understood by the general public, and sensationalist news is not helping. GMOs have been used widely since the 1990s and the general public just did not know much about them then. GMOs are extensively researched to ensure that they are not toxic to humans.”

However, with the introduction of genetic editing, the debate about foreign DNA goes away. Any genes expressed in the crops were there to begin with and were simply tweaked. Additionally, no new potential allergy inducing components are added to the crops, so unless the allergy is native to the original plant, there isn’t a problem.

2. Inadequate regulations could cause dangerous foods to go onto the market for economic reasons.

Regulations for genetic editing have not yet been put into place, and many people do not even consider them GMOs. On the other hand, since there are fewer regulations for GEOs, smaller companies and start-ups are able to get into the business, evening out the playing field.

It will no longer be solely the companies that can afford to jump through hoops in regulation that monopolize the market. More competition means more incentive to create better and safer crops rather than find the easiest way to accrue the most economic gain.

3. GMOs can lead to a loss of crop diversity.

While crop diversity is a problem when dealing with any sort of mass agriculture, GEOs can potentially bring back ancient species of plants that were lost at some point in time during the history of agriculture.

Some beneficial properties which the plants may have had in the past can be revived through genetic editing.

No solution is perfect and we cannot please everyone, but GEOs could be a step in the right direction.

Follow Apoorva Bhaskara on Twitter.

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