What Are GMOs? [Part 2]

Thursday, April 2, 2015
GMO questions and answers part 2

Author: Kurt Boudonck, Plant Geneticist and Greenhouse Groupleader in RTP  


Earlier this week, we published the post “What are GMOs” in an effort to provide scientific answers to a highly debated subject.  As the GMO conversation continues to grow, we wanted to share “Part 2” of this series, to continue the education and provide clear and science driven answers.  


Our own plant scientist and Greenhouse Groupleader, Kurt Boudonck, answered a couple more questions to explain the science of GMOs.


How are GMOs made?
The process of making a GMO isn’t all that different from the natural process found in nature, except that it is modern, fast, precise and equally safe.


Modern: About 30 years ago, someone “discovered” how nature transfers genetic material and brought this technology from the woods into the lab.


Fast:  The reason it takes nature hundreds or thousands of years to modify or make some really good genetic modifications, is the 2 pieces of the puzzle need to come together in nature and a transfer needs to take place. Genetic puzzle piece A needs to meet with Genetic puzzle piece B and a transfer or modification needs to happen. In a GMO lab, you can put piece A and piece B together in a matter of minutes and let it transfer.  


Precise: Natural modification in nature transfers thousands of pieces of genetic material over time from one to another. I wouldn’t call it precise. GMO can take one particular piece of that process and move only that one piece into the other organism. That’s precise.  It also prevents all the other genetic material from transferring, which may not be useful anyway.


Safe: The GMO modification process is safe because the same process is abundantly used in nature as well and has been tested to be safe. The final GMO product is safe as well because it goes through many tests for safety as part of the approval process before it is allowed in the hands of consumers like us.  Animals and humans have been consuming GMOs now for 30 years and not a single death or adverse effect has been reported.  


Which lab technique do GMOs use?
The “modern, fast, precise and safe” genetic modification associated with GMOs is achieved by using a bacteria in the lab that can be found in nature when you walk in the woods. It’s called Agrobacterium. This bacterium transfers genetic material in nature from one organism to another. It’s not a bad guy. Nothing to be scared of either.


No one knows for sure, but it is estimated there may be hundreds of thousands of different types of bacteria on earth. Agrobacterium is just one of them. Now you won’t be surprised perhaps that it took until the 1980s to discover this little guy’s transfer power among the thousands of others. Had they accidentally discovered this functionality in the Middle Ages, we may not be having this discussion today. Our ancestors may all have been eating GMO rice with vitamin A with GMO papaya as dessert for years.


In summary, in a university lab, one can accelerate the natural transfer of a genetic piece from one organism to another with the intervention of Agrobacterium. Once that transfer has happened, Agrobacterium is taken away, its service no longer needed, and it does not continue to live in the plant, and your GMO plant is ready. GMO plants will set GMO seeds. GMO seeds can be planted out and grown for food production. GMO food makes it to the store.


How can we be sure GMOs are safe to consume?
GMOs get tested over and over and over, taking many years, many repeat studies, under all sorts of conditions, to guarantee everything is safe about them. It costs millions of dollars for each separate GMO product.


Why all the testing? To make sure it’s safe and to give the public reassurance that there is nothing dangerous about the product, because with some people there lives the misperception that GMOs may be less safe than natural or organic. This concern is unfounded because after using GMOs for 30 years now as human and animal food, in drug medicines, cheeses, beer industry,…. not a single death or other ailment has been attributed to GMOs.


Instead, GMOs continue to rescue lives of those who are in need the most. Such as a dying Ebola patient who got a new GMO vaccine from plants and healed right away, or the millions who depend on GMO insulin for diabetes survival, and the millions who depend on GMO foods such as corn or soy because without GMOs they would either have their plants eaten up by insects, weeds, fungi or they would need to pay lots of money to kill the insects, weeds, fungi with many chemical applications.


For more information and insights on the science behind GMOs, visit www.GMOAnswers.com, or check out Part 1 in the What Are GMOs series. You can also read Kurt’s Reddit AMA, where he answered questions about his job as a Bayer CropScience plant scientist.  

What are your thoughts on the GMO conversation? Leave a comment below or share with us on Twitter @Bayer4CropsUS!





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