When you hear the words genetically modified organism, GMO, or gen-mod food, what is your initial reaction? Does the thought of a scientifically manipulated fruit or vegetable make your mouth water? Or does it turn your stomach?
As a science writer, the topics I choose to cover vary from the mundane to the controversial, but I rarely see feather ruffling like I do when GMOs enter the conversation. Often the list of questions evoked is longer than the list of pros and cons we can draft on our own. Should we be tinkering with the genomes of plants to make them heartier, tastier, more nutritive? Does this process reduce their safety? Do consumers need to know whether their food has been genetically modified? And while we're at it, what exactly is genetic modification?
Seeking answers, I reached out to Dr. Kevin Folta, a professor in the plant molecular and cellular biology program at the University of Florida. His lab researches the role of novel genes in strawberries, and he's also a science communicator. He writes often about the role of GMOs in modern society, attempting to shed light on this often misunderstood science.
In 2007, South Korean scientists altered a cat’s DNA to make it glow in the dark and then took that DNA and cloned other cats from it — creating a set of fluffy, <a href="http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2007/12/13/4349719-cloned-cats-that-glow" target="_hplink">fluorescent felines</a>. Here’s how they did it: The researchers took skin cells from Turkish Angora female cats and used a virus to insert genetic instructions for making red fluorescent protein. Then they put the gene-altered nuclei into the eggs for cloning, and the cloned embryos were implanted back into the donor cats — making the cats the surrogate mothers for their own clones. What’s the point of creating a pet that doubles as a nightlight? Scientists say the ability to engineer animals with fluorescent proteins will enable them to artificially create animals with human genetic diseases.
The <a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/03/100330-bacon-pigs-enviropig-dead-http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/03/100330-bacon-pigs-enviropig-dead-zones/" target="_hplink">Enviropig</a>, or “Frankenswine,” as critics call it, is a pig that’s been genetically altered to better digest and process phosphorus. Pig manure is high in phytate, a form of phosphorus, so when farmers use the manure as fertilizer, the chemical enters the watershed and causes algae blooms that deplete oxygen in the water and kill marine life. So scientists added an E. Coli bacteria and mouse DNA to a pig embryo. This modification decreases a pig’s phosphorous output by as much as 70 percent — making the pig more environmentally friendly.
Scientists at the University of <a href="http://www.mnn.com/local-reports/washington" target="_hplink">Washington</a> are <a href="http://wa.water.usgs.gov/pubs/fs/fs082-98/" target="_hplink">engineering poplar trees that can clean up contamination sites</a> by absorbing groundwater pollutants through their roots. The plants then break the pollutants down into harmless byproducts that are incorporated into their roots, stems and leaves or released into the air. In laboratory tests, the transgenic plants are able to remove as much as 91 percent of trichloroethylene — the most common groundwater contaminant at U.S. Superfund sites — out of a liquid solution. Regular poplar plants removed just 3 percent of the contaminant.
Scientists have recently taken the gene that programs poison in scorpion tails and combined it with cabbage. Why would they want to create <a href="http://www.nature.com/cr/journal/v12/n2/full/7290120a.html" target="_hplink">venomous cabbage</a>? To limit pesticide use while still preventing caterpillars from damaging cabbage crops. These genetically modified cabbages produce scorpion poison that kills caterpillars when they bite leaves — but the toxin is modified so it isn’t harmful to humans.
Strong, flexible spider silk is one of the most valuable materials in nature, and it could be used to make an array of products — from artificial ligaments to parachute cords — if we could just produce it on a commercial scale. In 2000, Nexia Biotechnologies announced it had the answer: <a href="http://www.physorg.com/news194539934.html" target="_hplink">a goat that produced spiders’ web protein</a> in its milk. Researchers inserted a spiders’ dragline silk gene into the goats’ DNA in such a way that the goats would make the silk protein only in their milk. This “silk milk” could then be used to manufacture a web-like material called Biosteel.
AquaBounty’s genetically modified salmon grows twice as fast as the conventional variety — the photo shows two same-age salmon with the genetically altered one in the rear. The company says the fish has the same flavor, texture, color and odor as a regular salmon; however, the debate continues over whether the fish is safe to eat. <a href="http://www.aquabounty.com/products/products-295.aspx" target="_hplink">Genetically engineered Atlantic salmon</a> has an added growth hormone from a Chinook salmon that allows the fish to produce growth hormone year-round. Scientists were able to keep the hormone active by using a gene from an eel-like fish called an ocean pout, which acts as an “on switch” for the hormone. If the FDA approves the sale of the salmon, it will be the first time the government has allowed modified animals to be marketed for human consumption. According to federal guidelines, the fish would not have to be labeled as genetically modified.
Flavr Savr tomato
The <a href="http://californiaagriculture.ucanr.org/landingpage.cfm?article=ca.v054n04p6&fulltext=yes" target="_hplink">Flavr Savr tomato</a> was the first commercially grown genetically engineered food to be granted a license for human consumption. By adding an antisense gene, the <a href="http://www.mnn.com/local-reports/california" target="_hplink">California</a>-based company Calgene hoped to slow the ripening process of the tomato to prevent softening and rotting, while allowing the tomato to retain its natural flavor and color. The FDA approved the Flavr Savr in 1994; however, the tomatoes were so delicate that they were difficult to transport, and they were off the market by 1997. On top of production and shipping problems, the tomatoes were also reported to have a very bland taste: “The Flavr Savr tomatoes didn’t taste that good because of the variety from which they were developed. There was very little flavor to save,” said Christ Watkins, a horticulture professor at Cornell University.
<a href="http://www.mnn.com/green-tech/research-innovations/photos/12-bizarre-examples-of-genetic-engineering/banana-vaccines" target="_hplink"><strong>CLICK HERE</strong></a> to continue on to <a href="http://www.mnn.com" target="_hplink">Mother Nature Network</a> to see the rest of these bizarre genetically engineered creations, including <a href="http://www.mnn.com/green-tech/research-innovations/photos/12-bizarre-examples-of-genetic-engineering/banana-vaccines" target="_hplink">banana vaccines</a>, <a href="http://www.mnn.com/green-tech/research-innovations/photos/12-bizarre-examples-of-genetic-engineering/less-flatulent-cow" target="_hplink">less-flatulent cows</a>, <a href="http://www.mnn.com/green-tech/research-innovations/photos/12-bizarre-examples-of-genetic-engineering/medicinal-eggs" target="_hplink">medicinal eggs</a> and more!