The ability to create genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has the potential to be either beneficial or baneful to human society, depending on how it is used.
Old Fashioned Selective Breeding Technique
The traditional method of controlling an organism's gene pool is to limit the potential mates for reproduction (breeding). For example, if a gardener is trying to breed for red flowers, then they will collect and use seeds from parent plants that have red flowers (or are suspected of having the recessive gene for red flowers).
Plants that produce flowers of other colors are not used for reproduction. By limiting the gene pool in this way, over generations, the proportion of the red flowering gene in the population can be increased until most or all of the offspring produce red flowers.
Two major limitations of traditional breeding are that it is time-consuming, often taking many generations for a particular trait to show with regularity, and to be successful, the genes for that trait must occur naturally in the starting stock.
Genetic engineering allows for the creation of genetically modified organisms. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the blueprint cells use for development and function. Changing this blueprint (the genotype) can have an effect on the physical form (phenotype) of the organism. This is done by altering the DNA (the genetic code) to create new combinations.
Mutagenesis is one way to change the genetic code of a cell. Exposure to radiation or to certain chemicals (often carcinogens) can make changes to the genetic code by physical alteration.
When these cells replicate, they use the damaged instructions, which may result in new cells containing a changed instruction set. Early forms of commercial mutagenesis research exposed large numbers of plant seeds to radiation, which were then sprouted and the survivors checked for interesting developments. Modern methods of mutagenesis are much more controlled and exacting.
Transgenesis allows for combining genetic material from one organism with another, even if the two are not able to normally share genetic code by sexual reproduction. For example, DNA Plant Technology's "fish tomato" shared genetic material from an Arctic flounder with a tomato plant.
This may be done by splicing the genetic code for a particular trait from one organism into the DNA of another organism. This altered code is then either combined with a bacterial or retrovirus carrier or directly introduced into a reproductive or stem cell. When a bacterial carrier is used, the altered DNA is inserted into the bacteria, which is used to infect the cells of a host plant. Tiny glass needles, or particles of gold or tungsten, can be used for direct physical implantation into cells.
Once treated, the survivors of these first transgenic cells can then be used to start new varieties of GMO life. When cells replicate, the changed DNA is copied as well. Since DNA is the blueprint for how an organism's cells grow and behave, this technology can create new life forms from combining existing organisms.
In plants, the infected cells are extracted and replicated using tissue culture techniques, allowing a small number of treated cells to develop into full-sized plants. In animals, treatment takes place in the early stages of the animal's development so that natural processes can be used to develop the animal into a full-sized organism. Once an initial transgenic population is established, they can be used to generate as many offspring as needed.
For example, Yorktown Technologies owns the rights to several lines of transgenically modified zebra danio fish. The appropriately named "green fluorescent protein" (GFP) gene from a glowing jellyfish was introduced into a zebra danio line to create a patented (and trademarked) line of genetically engineered pets known as GloFish.
Using a similar technique, they have also taken genetic code from a sea coral to create red, green, orange, blue and purple zebrafish. In a similar fashion, mice have been developed that create insulin for diabetics, and plants have been made that are more resistant to disease, herbicides and have longer shelf life.
One aspect of interest with GMOs is that because they are an artificial creation, they are often patentable, and not only the individual organisms but also the genetic code can be owned-similar to a copyright.
Many GMO products are sold with a prohibition against allowing offspring. In some cases, fields of transgenic plants have pollinated neighboring fields, contaminating otherwise non-GMO crops. In extreme cases, this has resulted in the GMO-producing company accusing farmers with neighboring fields of patent infringement. Of particular concern is the introduction of GMOs into the food supply for humans.
Benefits of using GMOs include the creation of super versions of standard food supply plants and animals. Resistance to disease, pollution, environmental stress, and drought can be improved using genetic modification. Traits not occurring in nature can be added to organisms, and new lifeforms can be created as needs change.
With the mounting issues associated with world overpopulation, GMOs may provide a way to continue to feed an ever-increasing number of mouths with a finite amount of farmable land, buying time to develop a more sustainable long-term solution. As expertise in the field grows, customized life becomes easier to create.
One concern about using GMOs in the food supply is that this practice gives exploitable leverage to the large corporations owning the rights to new life forms. Another concern is the possibility of a flaw in one of the new forms that cause harm to itself or others that may go unnoticed until there is a widespread reliance on it.
Unlike heritage varieties that are open-pollinated and legal to save the seeds from year after year, the life created by GMOs have legal issues that give permanent rights to their creator's employers (or licensees), which often prohibit unauthorized reproduction.
A final drawback to mention is that the sale of genetically modified organisms for food is illegal in some areas around the globe, so any produce grown for export to such countries should be GMO-free and not grown in pollen proximity to GMO crops.
As a legal question, even though in common usage in the United States, there is still debate over whether or not these new life forms should be allowed for use in the food supply, and if so, whether or not the consumer should be informed by labeling or another method. Due to the end-user agreement restrictions placed by the GMO companies, impartial independent testing and study are often not legally possible.
Since each new life form is crafted from slightly different parts, some may be beneficial, some baneful and some indifferent. A flaw in one GMO product does not mean that all GMO products share the same flaw, and just because one GMO product proves safe does not mean they all are.
The technology for creating synthetic life is no longer a thing of science fiction, but a facet of modern life. As with any far-reaching technology, conscience and social responsibility should be at least as much a consideration for use as profit and power.