What is GMO?

There is no doubt that controversy exists over GMO products. This blog hopes to summarize what is GMO, without taking any sides in this debate. Hopefully, we can at least scientifically put some definition to "GMO" before fists start flying.

GMO stands for genetically modified organism, whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified using genetic engineering. It can be an animal, a plant, a fungus, bacteria, or even a virus. Is it only performed by mad scientists bent on dooming society? Not exactly. Techniques to modify genes are commonly used in research to study the function of proteins, but has more recently been introduced into agriculture and food, a central point in the debate on GMO's.
Why would you want to modify an organism's DNA?
In research, modifying genes allows scientists to understand the function of the proteins that the gene encodes. "Modification" can cover a number of very different scenarios in which DNA is changed. This includes: 1. deletion of a gene, 2. changing the DNA sequence such that different amino acids are now encoded, or 3. insertion of new DNA. Any of these modifications could result in loss of expression, loss of function, increased expression, or increased function in a protein or organism, diagrammed below.
It is important to note that deletion of DNA could potentially lead to increased expression in other proteins, particularly if that sequence of DNA (or its product) is a suppressor of other proteins. Likewise, insertion of a new suppressor gene could similarly lead to decreased expression of other proteins. (Indicated by dashed arrows.) Understanding the functions of proteins can lead to understanding disease, ultimately leading to drug discoveries and cures.
Selecting Traits
To select for certain traits, one could selectively cross-breed the organism until it becomes "pure-bred" for certain traits. This is already common in agriculture and our common pets, dogs and cats. The only problem with this is that it takes a relatively long time to achieve the desired results. Coincidentally, evolution is really just the natural version of trait selection. In the case of evolution, the traits being selected are those best suited for survival; this includes humans. We really are just GMOs of our ancestors from 200,000 years ago. One limitation of trait selection is that it is generally not possible to introduce a trait from one organism into another organism. This would require genetic intervention, in the form of DNA modification, as we know it.

Black and White
The real purpose of this blog is to just lay out on the table that not all GMOs are the same and that the potential for impact or risk, if any, would be significantly different for each GMO. Introducing a new gene that is an anti-fungal or allows temperature resistance is not the same as removing a gene that limits growth. Each has its own set of implications that need to be analyzed independently.
Real Risk
To address this risk, there needs to be scientific data collection and analysis. To label all GMOs as "bad" just because it is by definition a GMO, would be unjust and irrational. What are the real risks associated with each GMO? Time and data will tell, but we cannot allow ourselves to be so blinded that it limits our visions of the potential benefits for GMOs. Is the prevention of starvation and malnutrition for millions of people worth having a GMO? Is a GMO plant programmed to produce a bug repellant riskier than spraying insecticides?
So the next time you see someone protesting a GMO, you should ask yourself first, "what exactly is the modification that they are protesting?"

Read more on the GMO controversies and some data here:
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