There is a new age upon us and this is the age of genetic modification. We will one day be able to change the genes in any organism we wish, this day is very soon! Through the work of biologists and microbiologists, biotechnology will be the future. Biotechnology harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet. Just think, one day we will be able to harness the gene’s sharks have to re-grow teeth; imagine never having to go to the dentist again! Would swapping genes with a shark be worth it?
The first thing to understand is the acronym for genetically modified organism is known as a G.M.O. Genetic modification, also known as genetic engineering (GE), is the direct manipulation of an organism’s genome using biotechnology. For example, lets take a scorpion. When a scorpion stings someone, venom travels through the victim's system to a designated location controlled by a gene in the venom, so certain scorpion’s venom will attack the lungs, other’s will attack the liver or the kidneys, etc, etc. Biologists are now, trying to capture this gene and place it in drugs, so that when we ingest the drug it will go straight to the needed site.
The process of G.M.O. production is summarized as follows:
- Identifying the desired gene.
- Isolating that gene.
- Growing/reproducing the gene into many replicas.
- Finding the right spot for the gene within the DNA of an organism.
- This strand of DNA is then injected into bacteria as to help move and reproduce the DNA. (Bacteria has a sex pilus that can be inserted into any other bacteria and that bacteria will then have the DNA the first bacteria does, this process is done within a matter of seconds.)
- Transfer of the constructed bacteria into the recipient’s tissue.
- The gene then becomes part of the genome of the recipient.
- The recipient will now have the gene forever and will pass it on when reproduction occurs.
With the knowledge of this simple overview, of the modification process, one can presume to understand how this might affect everything in life including fishing, farming, and agriculture. In the United States one biotech corporation that deals with agricultural GMO’s is a Missouri-based company called Monsanto. Corporations such as this control a large amount of the agricultural market around the world.
Monsanto is the world’s lead producer of Roundup, a herbicide supposed to kill plants; it contains the ingredient Glyphosate. Monsanto is also the largest producer of genetically engineered seeds on the planet, accounting for over 90% of the GE seeds planted globally in 2003. They introduced genetically modified soybeans that are resistant to Roundup. The first crops introduced were soybeans, followed by corn in 1998. These Roundup ready crops greatly improved a farmer’s ability to control weeds, since Glyphosate could be sprayed in the fields without harming the crops.
The spray kills everything except for the genetically modified crop because it’s engineered to resist the Roundup herbicide. These chemicals are the center for a lot of controversy because we have no idea what they will do to the human race or Earth as a whole, we can only speculate. Earth has a large population and around 15% of the population is food insecure, which means they don’t know where their next meal will be coming from. GMO’s can help with this hunger problem, but at what cost.
Bio-magnification explains why a substance appears in higher concentrations in organisms higher in a given food chain than in organisms lower in a food chain. This occurs because predators higher in the food chain consume organisms lower in the food chain and absorb the substances from the organisms they consume, in addition to the substances they directly absorb from the environment. The organisms higher in the food chain will be affected more from bio-magnification, because they consume more organisms than the organisms lower in the food chain.
In essence, organisms lower in the food chain do not consume as many chemicals as larger organisms do, which makes them less affected by these chemicals. In the case of Glyphosate, when it's released into the environment to help fight off unwanted organisms, this chemical can have a large effect on humans due to all the organisms that come into contact with this chemical that humans consume.
In Puget Sound Washington a company wants to mass produce genetically modified fish in the sound to help combat overfishing. Aquabounty is a company based out of Waltham Massachusetts. They have genetically modified Atlantic salmon, called Aquadvantage salmon (AAS), to reach maturity twice as fast as conventional salmon. AAS is an environmentally sustainable alternative to current farmed salmon. AAS will be grown as sterile, all-female populations in land-based facilities with redundant biological and physical containment. As a result, AAS cannot escape or reproduce in the wild and pose no threat to wild salmon populations. With the ability to grow fish twice as fast, theoretically, we will be able to feed twice as many people.
Everything in life comes with a risk attached to it, especially where technology is involved. Just look at chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s), the chemical in aerosol spray cans. The ozone layer had a hole in it that wouldn’t stop growing until we banned CFC’s. CFC’s were banned in 1987 to prevent damage to the ozone layer and soon after we saw the ozone layer start to rebuild itself. This is one risk of technology that we have been introduced to intimately, but what about risks of genetic engineering.
To understand the negative effects of genetic engineering we must understand the complex biological and ecological systems. So far, scientists know of no inherent, genetic harms associated with GE organisms. There have been no proven risks, but at the same time it's understood that we need to watch out for possible health and environmental problems that are impacted by these organisms.
Some concerns with health risks are new allergens in the food supply, antibiotic resistant genes, the production of new toxins, the concentration of toxic metals, and the enhancement of toxic fungi in the environment.
Environmental risks to watch out for are increased weediness, gene transfer, the change in herbicide use patterns, squandering of valuable pest susceptibility genes, poisoned wildlife, and the creation of new (or worse) viruses.
There has been some analysis on the likelihood of problems to arise from GE products. The USDA and the EPA rely on information provided by the companies conducting GE operations, so their assessment is definitely bias. On the other hand the answer depends greatly on how well the organisms and their interaction in the environment are understood. Risks must be assessed case by case as new applications of genetic engineering are introduced.
Organic agriculture is a growing part of agriculture that focuses on a holistic method to farming and understanding the health and ecology of the environment. Genetic engineering enables scientists to take what they want from nature so they can create plants, animals, and micro-organisms that would otherwise have never occurred naturally. These GMO’s can spread through nature and interbreed with natural organisms, thereby contaminating natural environments and future generations in an unforeseeable and uncontrollable way. Organic agriculture combat’s this problem by not involving organisms with genetic changes.