Friday, October 24, 2014

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!” 



  1. Good post! The argument about GMO's throughout our country has had me frustrated for some time now. The public is incredibly wary of the idea that these plants have been "tampered with" or changed unnaturally. The truth is, that most plants are GMO and that we have been eating them for years.

    I think your post points out a good point, that humans have been genetically modified for a long time. Obviously according to your information, that is not a bad thing and has allowed human life to continue beyond plagues and diseases. Where I think that some might argue (I personally do not have a problem with GMO's) is that these instances in history happened naturally. The population in Africa that have one copy of the gene for sickle cell anemia evolved that way. Same with cholera and cystic fibrosis. Where I think a lot of people have a problem/fear of GMO's (irrational or not) is that scientists are actually manipulating those genetics and putting different genes inside other organisms that wouldn't actually evolve that way naturally. Like I said, I am not against GMO's, but I think that is where some of the negative feelings come from.

    However, I do feel like this being a big issue in food and in society, that a lot of people are not doing their own research. Many people I have talked to about GMO's are adamant they are bad, but can't really tell me why or how a GMO is made. It is a social trend that really doesn't have a lot of substance. I agree with your quote at the end of the post. Don't you think it is important to recognize how much GMO's are consumed and how they are answering how to feed a growing world population? I'm sure there's someone out there that will voice a different opinion than mine, but it is my feeling that education is the key to this debate and that if you are to be passionate about something, be sure you have done some of your own research with credible sources.

  2. I found your post insightful and informative. I am frequently asked if hybrid garden seeds are GMO's. So there is a lot of confusion on what a GMO actually is. Corn has saved starving peoples in countries through different periods of time in history and is essential to the survival of many. Scientists being the creative problem solvers they are, have come up with food sources that solve a lot of problems that destroy the safety and stability that comes with food shortages. I loved the explanation about how humans have evolved to fight some of the nasty bugs that come along. Could the word 'adaptation' be included in the conversation. Adaptation seems to be key when adopting GMO food sources.

  3. I think that a big problem with the perception of GMOs is seeing it as the opposite of organic. GMOs make people think of manufactured goods, very unnatural. But in reality, the health factors of a GMO really depend on the specific design of the GMO. I even have qualms about some GMOs, as a educated student in a genetics field. I do not feel completely comfortable eating a strawberry that has been given a gene from a fish to make it resistant to frost. Combining genes from such vastly different organisms just seems like it would have unknown consequences in the plant. More importantly, I really do not want to eat a vegetable that has been genetically modified to be resistant to pesticides. However, this isn't because of the GMO portion, but I do not want to put high levels of pesticides in my body. However, I would be completely on board with genetic modifications to make the vegetable more resistant to pests or disease, which would allow less pesticides to be used [like insecticide producing corn]. My roommate the other day was excited because her corn chips were not GMO. My snarky response was that if it was corn, it was a GMO. Corn and bananas were not consumable by humans before we selectively bred them for traits that made them edible. These were "unnatural" traits that would not have evolved otherwise. Her response about her chips was that it was organic, which is, to me at least, the more important question to ask. But there should be no reason that part of genetically modified plants can't be to make them more nutritious [which is being done - golden rice is a good example] or easier to farm in an organic setting, with little to no pesticide and chemical use. I think that people don't understand the subtleties between GMOs and organic, and I don't completely blame people for not wanting to eat something designed to soak in chemicals and still grow [such as round-up ready corn].

    Jocelyn Cuthbert

  4. People are definitely confused about the difference between genetically modified and artificial selection. I love the frequently used banana argument that demonstrates the difference between natural selection and artificial selection. To summarize, humans have selectively bred bananas over the past 7-8 thousand years to become the tasty snack they are today. As I understand, virtually all cultivated crops in modern agriculture have been artificially selected to enhance their most desirable traits, for the past 10,000 years.
    I am also not interested in supporting agricultural efforts that lead to enhanced pesticide resistance, as Jocelyn pointed out earlier. Pesticides have displayed adverse effects on biomarkers of health, farm run off waters, and bee pollination. Increasing pesticide use should be a concern of the public.

  5. This is another controversial topic GMO. In this kid of issue we need to balance between being greedy and wise. When it comes to GMO, people including scientists have two different opposite opinions. Some are supporting the use of GMO and hormones and the other want to go organic. The intention behind this different from to another. Some do it for health sake and some totally for money. GMO can help to produce more with less cost and organic products are pricey and make good money!
    In my opinion, I am not supporting going totally organic. We need to use our knowledge to improve the quality and efficiency of food to feed this growing populations. In the last few decades, the number of farmers decreased while the production increased and all of that because of harnessing the knowledge and new findings to make life better. Now, we have growing cities and populations with limited lands for agriculture. What is the solution if everyone wants to go organic and drink milk and eat meat from free range and open pasture animals?
    I think we need to use our mind and science to make our life more efficient, but without affecting our health or disturbing the nature. Everything is good with moderation.

  6. I will resist the urge to jump on my "organic" soapbox here, against people that "only eat organic" but really have no idea what that means. But that being said...couldn't a GMO crop also be organic? I will stick to what I know and use dairy cows as an example. Holsteins (the traditional "black and whites" that everyone is familiar with) are a man made breed. There were no ancient or wild Holsteins. They have absolutely been bred for maximum milk production and now a days, are generally reproduced using sexed semen to produce females. I think most people would agree that these modifications fall under the GMO umbrella. There are consequences...Holsteins typically have reproduction problems. But they sure crank out a lot of milk to meet the world's demand for dairy products! So here's the kicker...certified organic dairies are full of Holsteins. Other breeds as well but Holsteins are still the predominant milking breed globally. Because being organic and being a GMO crop or animal are two separate questions!

  7. While selective breeding is a form of genetic modification, I think it is important to note that genetically modifying food has gone well beyond applying selective pressure to a population for a certain trait. Selective breeding does change the genetics of a population, which could be argued as not “natural.” However, I think that what many people have a problem with is adding genetics that into a species that has never been naturally found in that species. I think that everyone would agree that this is not a natural process. While I support the use of genetic modification to improve production, I believe as scientists it is important to be clear that inserting genetics to make transgenic animals or plants is not “natural.”