What Are GMOs? [Part 1]

Tuesday, March 31, 2015
GMO Questions and Answers part 1

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

 

In the last few years, the food and health industry has been buzzing about GMOs.  The scientific term has spread on social media - with everyone from The Skimm, to Katie Pinke, to Bill Nye the Science Guy weighing in on the GMO “debate.”

 

With social conversation growing and misinformation flying, we wanted to provide some scientific answers straight from plant scientists.  Our own, Kurt Boudonck, plant geneticist and Greenhouse Groupleader in RTP, sat down to explain the basics of GMOs.

 

What does GMO mean?
GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” The term refers to the fact that an “organism” (plant, animal, insect, bacteria, yeast…) has been “modified” by the transfer of a piece of “genetic” material coming from another organism, through the use of modern, fast, precise and safe scientific techniques.

 

What are some misconceptions about GMOs?
Some people fear GMOs because they think that scientists created something that never existed before in nature, and therefore may perhaps be dangerous or unsafe. This is a misunderstanding.

 

Organisms have been “modifying” themselves and each another, for thousands of years. Modification is a natural process, seen everywhere in nature. Let’s illustrate with two examples from the plant world:
  1. Tomatoes. Tomatoes are non-GMO. In food stores you will find tiny cherry tomatoes but also big flesh tomatoes. Both are “modified or genetically different” versions of a standard average tomato. So nature itself modified tomatoes to give us different kinds of tomatoes.

  2. Strawberries. Strawberries are non-GMO. The strawberry that is at your farmer’s market today has gone through hundreds of natural genetic modifications over hundreds of years. It may have acquired a piece of genetic material from an insect, a piece of genetic material from a plant virus, a piece from another plant….to make up the sweet and juicy traits it has today. This is all part of nature’s process.

These examples illustrate the fact that if we genetically modify an organism or make a “GMO,” that is not very different than what nature does already by itself every day.

 

What makes GMOs different then?
The difference lies in the use of modern, fast, precise and safe scientific techniques to make the modification happen faster. Let’s illustrate with two GMO examples from the plant world:
  1. Papayas. The papaya ringspot virus nearly wiped out the entire papaya production in Hawaii in the second half of the 20th century. Without science intervening, it is possible that papayas may have gone extinct or that a few plants may have slowly developed resistance to the virus (over the span of hundreds of years).  
     
    Enter GMO. In a lab, scientists were quickly able to modify the papaya with a piece of genetic material that instantly made the papaya resistant to the destructive virus.  The GMO papaya went through years of testing and regulatory studies, was approved, and is now available in stores.  

  2. Rice. Many populations around the world depend on rice as a food source.  Rice is low on vitamin A and this can lead to blindness if used as sole food source, because eyes need vitamin A.   Left alone, there is a chance that in thousands of years we may find a new variant of rice that naturally produces more vitamin A by taking up pieces of genetic DNA from other vitamin A rich organisms.  

    Enter GMO. In a lab, scientists used a modern, fast, precise and safe technique to modify rice with a new piece of genetic material that now allows the rice to produce a lot more vitamin A. This product exists today, called golden rice.  It is currently in the approval phase, and hopefully will reach the market soon.  

For more information and insights on the science behind GMOs, read Part 2 of "What are GMOs?" and visit www.GMOAnswers.com. 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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