Genetically-Modified Organisms: The good, the bad, and the future

Image by Hannah Somheygi.

Image by Hannah Somheygi.

The Nobel Prize is named after a scientist, Alfred Nobel, who established the prizes in his will in 1885. Alfred Nobel is famous for inventing dynamite. However, he mistakenly believed that his invention would bring about a more peaceful world. He is quoted as saying, “My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace” [1]. In fact, his invention led to the development of many modern tools of war.

Dynamite is a technological advancement that led to the deaths of many people. However, technological advancements have not exclusively made the world a worse place. Because of technological advancements, more people than ever before have access to tools that make life easier such as medicine, electricity, and indoor plumbing. Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are some of the more recent and controversial tools that have been developed. According to the companies and scientists who design new GMO crops, this new technology is harmless to humans, better for the environment, and is the only way to feed an ever-growing population [2]. On the other hand, anti-GMO groups claim that GMOs cause health problems for both humans and animals, destroy the environment, and only benefit large corporations. So, why did scientists develop these new organisms?

Crop scientists and engineers want to come up with solutions to problems facing the world, like decreased yields due to pests and weeds. For example, Roundup Ready corn was supposed to be better for the environment by decreasing the amount of herbicide farmers needed to use on their crops. Scientists also make GMOs to address health problems in the developing world. For instance, Golden Rice was developed to prevent Vitamin-A deficiency in the children of developing countries. In both of these examples, the scientists had a socially-responsible motive for creating a GMO. However, it can be difficult to predict all the effects (both good and bad) of a new technological advancement. In order to decide for ourselves what the effects of GMO use have been, we need to look at the most unbiased source of information—the scientific literature.

Herbicide-resistant corn

Herbicides are chemicals, often highly toxic, that are sprayed on weeds in order to kill them so that they do not compete with the desired crop for space and nutrients. Some are selective for certain kinds of plants. Others, including Roundup, are nonselective, and if they are sprayed on both weeds and crops, they will kill both. Scientists thought that if the crops were resistant to Roundup, use of the herbicide would be more effective. Spraying the whole field with Roundup would take less time and actually use less Roundup than spraying the weeds one by one. Using less herbicide in this way would be better for the environment as well. For these reasons, Roundup Ready corn and soybeans were created to be resistant to Roundup.

The chemical in Roundup that kills plants is called glyphosate. Glyphosate works by inhibiting the plant enzyme that helps make some of the amino acids (protein building blocks) that the plant needs to survive [3]. Roundup Ready crops contain a different version of this enzyme that is not blocked by glyphosate. Use of glyphosate-resistant crops was supposed to decrease herbicide use because less herbicide would be needed to kill the weeds, and to some extent, it has. Based on national pesticide usage data and other previously published pesticide use data from a number a sources in the scientific literature, it seems that herbicide use has decreased. From 1996 to 2011, use of herbicide-tolerant cotton reduced herbicide use by 6.1% compared to conventional cotton [4]. However, the liberal use of herbicides by farmers who grow herbicide-resistant crops has catalyzed the evolution of herbicide-resistant weeds. Since Roundup Ready crops were introduced in 1996, at least sixty-four weed species have evolved resistance [5]. Because of herbicide-resistant weeds, farmers will now have to increase herbicide use, so the recent decreases will not last. From these experiences, scientists have learned that engineering plants to be resistant to herbicides is not an effective long-term solution.

Baby steps towards Golden Rice

There is always room for improvement when new technologies are introduced, and GMOs are no different. Science is an iterative process that results in sequential improvements as a greater understanding of the problem is obtained and as better technologies are developed. Golden Rice is a strain of rice which contains a set of genes which allows it to make β-Carotene – the chemical that makes carrots orange and is turned into Vitamin A inside the body. The genes in Golden Rice that make β-Carotene come from other plants that naturally make it, like daffodils and corn. Golden Rice was developed to help combat Vitamin A deficiency problems in developing countries where diets are low in foods containing Vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is especially dangerous for children and pregnant mothers and commonly leads to blindness and even death [6]. Currently, Vitamin A deficiency can be prevented by taking oil-based supplements provided by international organizations, but Golden Rice may be even better at relieving Vitamin A deficiency because rice is a staple food in many countries, and it can be difficult to convince children to take vitamin supplements.

In the first iteration of Golden Rice, children would have had to eat several kilograms (up to 10 pounds!) of rice per day to get their recommended daily value of Vitamin A [7]. Therefore, scientists re-designed and improved the rice by switching out one of the genes that came from daffodils and instead put in a related one that came from corn. According to the scientific literature, the gene from corn worked much better, and the rice contained 23 times as much Vitamin A as the earlier version [8]. The scientists also showed that the rice was as good a source of Vitamin A as β-Carotene-filled oil capsules, which contain about the recommended daily value’s worth of β-carotene for a child [9]. They did this by taking blood samples from children who had consumed either the rice or the capsules, and looked to see how much of their β-Carotene had been converted in to Vitamin A. They found that the β-Carotene in Golden Rice was converted in to Vitamin A just as well as it was for the oil capsules. Despite these promising results, a remaining concern with Golden Rice is that Vitamin A content of the rice could decrease after it has been stored a long time. There have been no studies on this yet, but you can bet that there are scientists working on it right now.

The future?

Without a doubt, technological innovations can lead to advancements that may do more harm than good. This is why rational debate based on unbiased scientific data in the literature is essential. By questioning every aspect of a new technology, possible downsides can be uncovered, and strategies for improvements can be planned. When it comes to GMOs, there are many aspects that can be improved. However, many experts believe that if the human population continues to grow, current methods of farming will not feed everyone [2]. As the author and scientist Sam Harris has said, “If questions affect human wellbeing, they have answers” [10]. Scientists are always looking for these answers. When the public is educated on the problems the world faces, and supports research that aims to create socially-responsible solutions, scientists can work to make the world a better place.

Written by Marina Santiago


[1] Charlton, James.  (2002) The Military Quotation Book. P114 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Nobel

[2] Chen, Chi-Chung and Wei-Chun Tseng (2011) Do Humans Need GMOs? – A View from a Global Trade Market. Journal of American Academy of Business 8(1): 147.

[3] Steinrucken, H.C. and N. Amrhein. (1980) The herbicide glyphosate is a potent inhibitor of 5-enolpyruvylshikimic acid-3-phosphate synthase. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications 94(4): 1207-1212

[4] Brookes, Graham and Peter Barfoot. (2013) Key environmental impacts of global genetically modified (GM) crop use 1996-2011. Landes Bioscience 4(2): 109-119.

[5] Heap, Ian. (2013) International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds. www.weedscience.org/GRAPHS/SOAGRAPH.aspx

[6] (2013) Micronutrient Deficiencies: Vitamin A Deficiency. Nutrition. World Health Organization. www.who.int/nutrition/topics/vad/en/index.html

[7] Coghlan, Andy (2013) Is Opposition to Golden Rice “Wicked”? Slate. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/new_scientist/2013/10/golden_rice_inventor_ingo_potrykus_greenpeace_and_others_wicked_for_opposition.html

[8] Coghlan, Andy. (2005) New ‘golden rice’ carries far more vitamin. New Scientist. www.newscientist.com/article/dn7196-new-golden-rice-carries-far-more-vitamin.html

[9] Tang, Guangweng et al. (2012) β-Carotene in Golden Rice is as good as β-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96(3): 658-664.

[10] Harris Sam, (2010) Science can answer moral questions. Ted Talk. www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.html

Fit Philosophy: You Were Made to Move

Most of us don’t exercise regularly because we have better things to do, right? Go to work, run errands, meet friends, etc.  Yet we fit all of our daily routine activities without second thought. We brush teeth, wash up and groom without hesitation. The reason: we have daily activities that are routine, embedded and taught from a young age. We give our teeth, hair and skin the attention that they need, but often the rest of the body goes neglected.

Your body is a machine.
Everything we do is performed through a series of joint movements initiated by neurological stimulation and executed by muscular contraction. Your body is comprised of multiple pulleys that work together to produce specific movements that allow you to walk, get dressed, etc. It is a complex, sophisticated machine. And like all machines, it requires routine maintenance. 

You were made to move.
A body without regular exercise will not optimally function, just as a car will have problems if it hasn’t been used in a while. Muscles will tighten, shrink and weaken, and joints will stiffen from disuse. But since your body is sophisticated, it will improvise by using other muscles and joints to get your day-to-day activities done, feeding into a vicious cycle of compensation, imbalance, and ultimately injury. Bottom line: you were made to move. What muscles were meant to do!

Wear-and-tear is normal. 
In time, a car will break down. But slamming the brakes at every stop light or neglecting routine oil change can expedite that process.

Everyone at some point will suffer wear-and-tear of cartilage and joints—a natural degenerative process with aging and use. But with proper body mechanics, this degenerative process can be greatly delayed. Consider the hypothetical athlete at the gym who sacrifices form to push more weight. You may be able to push more resistance and pump out extra reps, but it will land you again into that cycle of compensation, imbalance, and injury. Your body is subject to wear-and-tear, and how you practice body mechanics will ultimately impact the longevity of your physical health. Bottom line: application of proper form will help preserve the integrity of your joints and muscles

Excuse #1: Not enough time.
Your most time-consuming daily activity is going to work/school. Undoubtedly, work and study are two investments in bettering your financial health. Likewise, exercise is an investment to bettering your physical health. The difference is that exercise is far less time-consuming. Increased fitness also means less susceptibility to long-term diseases and complications that require dipping into your financial savings. 

Excuse #2: "It’s boring".
Work is arguably more boring than exercise, yet we do it anyway because it is part of our daily routine. 20 to 30 minutes of moderate physical activity surely beats the 8-hour office grind.

Excuse #3: "I’m thin already".
Exercise is not only directed to those seeking to lose weight. There are plenty who are considered "thin", but still have a low muscle mass/high body fat content. Regardless of weight, practicing altered body mechanics can ultimately lead to excessive loading stress on joints and irreversible arthritic changes.

Excuse #4: "It hurts when I exercise".
That pain may be an indication that something is not working properly. Depending on the source, your pain may be one of many things, such as lactic acid buildup, stretching of a tightened structure, or exacerbation of an irritated body part. A physical therapist will be able to assist you in determining the source of the pain and prescribe therapeutic exercises to help alleviate the symptoms you experience.

Physical activity should be no different from brushing teeth.
No one ever says “brushing teeth is good for you.” It’s a given, and it’s already standardized as part of our daily routine. But “exercise is good for you” comes off as a motivational cliché and sounds more like an optional plus rather than a core component of our daily curriculum. If treated as an option, it will be brushed off.

Exercise should be routine, not optional—a subconscious given in our daily activities. 

You were made to move. Make it a given, and your body will thank you.