The Natural GMO
I grew up in rural western Iowa. In the past two decades, the landscape has become dominated by the Midwestern cash crop, corn. Row after row, acre after acre, mile after mile is filled with perfectly straight columns of neatly arranged specialized green grass. While most see these fields as vast emptiness, or perhaps the perfect scene out of the horror movie series “Children of the Corn,” I see peace, solitude and home. Most of these plants thrive and produce bushels upon bushels of corn at a higher rate than any other area in the world. The secret isn’t simply the rich black soil, abundant rain and high humidity. Part of the success story lies in the fact that most of these plants are GMOs. Recent media survey after recent media survey suggest that there is an growing concern among the general American public about GMOs. While Jimmy Kimmel does an excellent job broadcasting how little the American public actually knows about GMOs, a more reputable source has pointed out that most American’s don’t actually know a whole lot about GMOs and their role in today’s food sources.
GMOs are Genetically Modified Organisms. Their use in American culture dates back approximately 30 years. While mainstream ideas of GMOs are centered around food products genetically modified with particular genes for drought resistance, parasite resistance or increased yield, the first GMO routinely used in America is much different. GMOs took the spotlight when E. coli was given a gene to produce insulin, creating the product Humulin. In all animals, insulin is produced naturally by the pancreas in special Pancreatic Beta Cells. Insulin is secreted in response to an increase in blood sugar causing cells throughout the body to absorb the excess sugar for energy use and storage. Without insulin, the body eliminates sugar through the kidneys in a condition most American’s know: Diabetes Mellitus. Prior to Humulin, insulin products were derived from beef and pig pancreatic tissue... post-slaughter.
So, it’s a proven fact: GMOs have been saving lives and taking names for over 30 years. So why is the science behind genetic modification so dirty and controversial? Some claim that genetically modifying natural foods is simply unnatural. There is potential to disrupt natural processes in the body, and to that, I say I agree. Genetic modification of organisms does disrupt natural processes, sometimes. It’s called evolution. Think I’m being sarcastic? Well, just a little bit, but here are some awesome examples of how natural GMOs have shaped our human existence.
The year was 1832. London is a bustling cultural center, an over-populated metropolis, and the opening stage of a deadly epidemic. A naïve population of northern Europeans are massively exposed to a highly contagious bacterium, Vibrio cholera. The result the exposure is massive diarrhea. The bacterium releases a toxin which attaches to gut mucosal cells causing massive release of chloride ion into the intestine. Water and sodium are pulled out of the cell and follows the chloride into the gut creating a diarrhea. The end result without the advances of modern medicine is death in over 80% of the cases. All naïve individuals are effected, except for a subpopulation of individuals that are genetically modified. So what genetic modification saves you from cholera? The same gene that causes cystic fibrosis. The same mutation to these chloride pumps that causes lack of fluid production in the upper respiratory tract, build up of thick viscous mucous and eventual complications in humans also protects intestinal cells from over-secreting chloride when activated by cholera toxin? The key to success? Only have one copy of the gene. Those individual that are carriers for the disease and only have one copy of the gene do not have symptoms of cystic fibrosis yet have enough protection mutation in their intestinal cells to protect them cholera toxin diarrhea.
But Cystic Fibrosis isn’t the only genetic modification that’s changed humanity. While gin & tonic is the natural exogenous preventative for the devastating disease of malaria in those hot and humid environments, African’s have been beating malaria naturally for thousands of years. How’d they do it? As it turns out, the continent is covered with genetically modified people. Africans that live in malaria endemic regions are also more likely to have sickle cell anemia, a condition that leads to extremely fragile and misshapen red blood cells. Untreated, the condition is fatal. How has this deadly genetic disease survived so long in this population of people? The key is, once again, to have a single copy of the modified gene. Some red blood cells remain normal while others are mutated and misshapen. The malarial parasite (Plasmodium) is not inhibited from infected people with the mutated gene, but these individuals do not succumb to the severe disease state that their unmutated counterparts do.
The list goes on and on. Without mutations to the basic genome that makes us all more alike than different, we never would have survived the Yersinia pestis plagues killing off countless Europeans over the centuries as well as those pesky outbreaks in Eastern Asia. Influenza would have ended humanity with the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. Being genetically modified has its perks. As with everything in this world, the key to success is control and moderation.Genetic modifications shape our existence, there’s no doubt about that. Media tends to highlight how rapidly scientists are producing new GMO foods that stock our shelves. Organic and all natural proponents suggest that these products are ultimately detrimental to the body and the environment. To this, I’d like to point out a few flaws in the idealogy. First, humans aren’t that intelligent. I mean, sure, there are more than a few brainiacs dotting the landscape, but we aren’t super-humans (well, not yet). The genes for these GMOs are all natural. Scientist get the idea tocreate a GMO by taking a naturally existing organism, figuring out how itthrives, isolating the gene that does the job, and harnessing this gene’s power. Well, that kinda makes the lines of the term “all natural” kind of fuzzy, doesn’t it? Secondly, thanks to the recent world food talks, and the yearly World Food Prize announced last week in Iowa highlighting the increased need for food in the world, aren’t there other alternative arguments to consider? Such as, how can we produce enough food to save the world? To quote my good friend Mandy, “What the people in the world need is food, not pretentious strawberries!”