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Blinded By Science

Blinded By Science

By Chrissie Giles

The genetic modification of organisms is one of the most divisive issues of modern times. Lauded by some as the saviour of mankind, others worry that it will spell untold trouble for the human race. So who should we believe? Read Chrissie Giles' no-nonsense guide and make your own mind up.

What is genetic modification

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme International Guidelines for Safety in Biotechnology, genetic modification means ‘modern biotechnology used to alter genetic material of living cells or organisms in order to make them capable of producing new substances or performing new functions’.


A genetically modified organism (GMO) is – according to everyone’s favourite EU directive, 2001/18/EC – ‘an organism, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination’.

Woah, lose the science speak!

In simpler terms, genetic modification describes when scientists deliberately change the genetic material of plants, animals or micro-organisms to produce desirable traits. GMOs are used in many areas, from agriculture to pharmaceuticals and from goats modified to produce spider silk proteins to cheese making.

Cheese making?

Yep, and in producing enhanced versions of other meal-time staples such as long-life FlavrSavr tomatoes and ‘golden rice’ that contains beta-carotene.

So what’s the big deal?

GMOs, particularly genetically modified crops, have certainly provoked strong feelings in people. A small-scale study published in 1999 claimed that GM potatoes had an adverse effect on the guts of rats and sparked a strong anti-GM campaign.

Among other concerns, opponents fear that GM food could accidentally trigger allergies or other unwanted effects in people, and feel that too little is known about the risk of inserting genes from one species into the genome of another.

People also worry that the modified characteristics could transfer from GMOs to other species (e.g. that weeds could become resistant to herbicide), or that GM plants could disperse among wild plants and have a negative impact on naturally existing ecosystems.

Hmm, no GM ketchup on my chips please

Well, that’s only one side of the debate. Some people argue that humans have been modifying the genes in organisms for years, from gardeners crossing plant varieties to get massive marrows, to dog breeders and their labradoodles and puggles. Scientists have been altering genes in the lab for years too – by a process called mutagenesis, where organisms are exposed to radiation or chemicals that cause mutations.

Genetic modification is a means to alter crops to increase yield or enhance them in terms of nutrition or shelf-life. GM micro-organisms are currently used to produce a number of vaccines and proteins for medical use.

What’s happening now?

In 1998, the European Union began a moratorium on GM food. In 2004, after much pressure from the US, the ban was lifted. Two field trials of genetically modified potatoes are planned in the UK for April 2007 – the first such trials for several years. The US Department of Agriculture has recently approved a trial in Kansas to grow rice containing human proteins. Researchers plan to use the proteins to treat infants with diarrhoea in the developing world.

What to say: These glow-in-the-dark swedes are great for finding the keyhole at night.

Don’t mention: Are those goats meant to be spinning webs?

See also: Frankenstein food; Killer tomatoes; Designer babies

Get more from the Giles twins, feel clever:

- Straight - A is for Amino Acids
- Straight - G is for Genes

Image: Stephanie Berghaeuser

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11 Jan 2011
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