by Allen Leigh, contributor
A few weeks ago, I brought up the subject of genetically modified organisms (GMO). I thought I would do a post on GMO so I could go into more detail about it. As a background on GMO for those not familiar with it, the April 2013 issue of Discover magazine has an interesting article on GMO. That article is also online.
To begin with, let me explain my attitude towards GMO, because my background means I’m biased in certain ways about GMO. I’m in favor of the concept of genetically grown plants. I was trained and worked in industry as an electrical engineer and a computer software engineer for over 40 years. It seems natural to me to modify the DNA of plants such that they develop desirable characteristics. For example, plants are being developed to not be affected by the use of Roundup. This means that farmers can spray their fields with Roundup to control weeds and not reduce the growth of their crops. GMO also means that plants can be modified to be resistant to insects, thus reducing the need for those plants to be sprayed with insecticides. One of my concerns, however, about GMO is that pollen from GMO plants may spread to non-GMO plants and cause contamination of the DNA of the non-GMO plants. I’m also concerned that some GMO plants are sterile thus forcing farmers to buy new seeds each year. A third concern is that GMO scientists are modifying DNA without giving plants sufficient time to adjust to the changes. DNA changes do occur in nature, but those changes occur over millions of years, while GMO changes occur over months or a few years. Through GMO, we are introducing into our food supply genes that have never been in food, and we don’t know how our bodies will react to those genes. We don’t know if negative side-effects of those genes will occur.
Now, lets look at the Discover article. According to the article, 93% of the soy grown in the US is genetically modified. In addition, a high percentage of the corn grown in the US is via GMO. GMO has drastically increased food production throughout the world, and people who support GMO say this is important, because the population of the world is increasing, and new methods of growing food must be developed to feed the new mouths. American scientists and engineers are, in general, in favor of GMO. In Europe, however, many (most?) scientists and engineers are against GMO. Organic farming is popular in Europe, and organic farmers are worried that fields of GMO plants will contaminate their fields of organic crops. Several European countries have made it illegal to grow GMO plants, and at least one large food corporation has agreed to move its GMO research out of Europe and to not use GMO in food intended for European markets.
Decades of the use of GMO techniques have taken place without measurable impact of our environment. However, new evidence may be emerging that shows that GMO is having an undesirable impact on our environment. A report was issued this week about GMO modifications of rice spreading to relatives of the rice which are considered weeds. The weedy-rice showed signs of GMO even though the plants were not subject to GMO. Time will tell if additional scientific research brings out more examples of negative influences of GMO on plants, especially those providing our food supply.
Another scientific discipline that is similar to GMO is the creation of synthetic DNA, that is DNA not naturally occurring. Scientists are doing this by taking small snippets of DNA and combining them into workable genomes. The October 2013 issue of Discover has an article that discusses this. The online version of this article is here. As explained in the article,
At its most basic, synthetic biology is about making DNA from scratch, on scales from individual molecules to cells, tissues and even entire organisms. The field’s raison d’être is to design and build brand-new biological systems to eradicate deadly diseases, manufacture better materials and reduce reliance on nonrenewable resources.
An example of synthetic DNA is the work of scientists to develop plants that glow in the dark, such that these plants could provide lighting for buildings.
My concerns about synthetic biology are similar to my concerns about GMO: control of the output of synthetic biology such that the new organisms are beneficial and not destructive to mankind. In piecing together snippets of DNA into new organisms, or as in the case of GMO, the taking of genes from animals or plants and placing them into other animals or plants, scientists are doing in a few months or a year or two what evolution might do in millions of years. I worry there might be undesirable side effects of this work by scientists and engineers.
It’s important for each of us to become familiar with GMO and DNA synthesis, because GMO foods are becoming more common in stores, and we have to decide if we will buy and consume those foods, or not. Especially, as we struggle to feed the less advantaged peoples of the world. In addition, many (most?) of us will experience synthetic organisms that were developed by scientists not by nature. I don’t know if the LDS church has taken a position about GMO and DNA synthesis. These may be topics in which the Lord expects us to intelligently study the issues involved and make our own decisions about those issues. At any rate, problems from GMO and synthetic biology are a class of problems never experienced before.
Allen’s write up was re-posted at ieet.org.