Why is Father Christmas red? Why do we use Fir trees for Christmas trees? Why do we give oranges to good children or coal to bad ones in their stockings? There are many mythical answers to these questions be it the latest Sainsbury’s advert, the institution that is Coca Cola or the old wives tales passed down from generation to generation. Whilst we are fixated on questioning the appearance of fictional festive characters, our curious nature has completely overlooked the food that we put into our bodies. For example, only 300 years ago carrots were white, but the Dutch selectively cultivated orange carrots as tribute to their monarchical dynasty (the House of Orange), making them the sweet juicy root vegetables they are today. Another example would be potatoes, which were originally poisonous and wheat was only a grass of spiny appearance all thanks to manipulation of genotypic and phenotypic characteristics of an organism.
Just like the tale of how Father Christmas became red, the terms “transgenesis” or “transgenic foods” have been modified in our everyday language provoking connotations of unnecessary scientific interference and mistrust of the general public in the consumption of genetically manipulated foods. There are social debates with conflicting arguments, which have become a topic of public interest debates that are often backed with limited knowledge about this technology used in crops. This fact has generated doubts and concerns in consumers and to prevent any risk that may arise when modifying an organism, laws have been established by different governments that clarify what kind of products should be strictly distributed and marketed.
Due to our abundance of food in Western Europe we are preoccupied with the idea that genetically modified foods might be bad for our health, however we fail to recognise the benefit of using these transgenic foods to satisfy global challenges such as famine and malnutrition. The genetically modified foods can be constructed in order to withstand extreme weather conditions provoked by climate change, such as flooding, droughts and high winds, which are the primary causes of famine. The role of transgenic foods can also be used to counter act the impact of pests or plagues, again producing more food to feed the ever growing population.
According to FAO,it is estimated that by 2020 there will be 8000 million people per food, of which 840 million will not have access to food nor clean running water.Arguably, regardless of human activity fertile land will continue to suffer natural disasters, but since humans are responsible for the impact of climate change it is also our responsibility to counteract the increasing impact.
But what is the GMO?
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is simply an organism, like any other, that produces thousands of proteins, but one or two of them are specifically selected by humans. The genetic modification process produces transgenic plants, (whose DNA is genetically modified to give it a new and useful characteristic, such as withstanding plagues, such a process has a relatively short history of around 30 years. GM allows the introduction and functional expression of foreign genes in plant cells and has been used in the introduction of drugs such as insulin and in the cheese production process.
TB (traditional reproduction) VS GM (Genetically modified)
On one hand, the use of traditional or conventional breeding is where a large amount of DNA is introduced or exchanged to produce resistance to dissemination. It must be noted that ideally DNA should only come from closely related species and reproduction mutation approaches are very common. On the other hand, GM uses a small amount of DNA which is well characterized and requires a process of transformation and tissue culture from exogenous sources. The key difference between conventional breeding and GM is that in GM DNA comes from any source (different organism) which is responsible for worrying the general public when used in foods.
The different processes to achieve a transgenic organisms have the same purpose of inserting genes of interest in the DNA of plants in order to obtain proteins of interest. Among the best known techniques are the “Gen Gun” (particle method) and the Agrobacterium method (use of bacteria) which causes tumours in plants.
The Gen gun
It is used to modify crops, the principle of this technique is that the genes of interest are precipitated by using gas pressure like heliun, with gold or tugsten microparticles forming metallic microbolites coated with the transgene, with which they are then bombarded vegetables (leaves, protoplasts). Consequently the transformed cells are selected in a medium that contains antibiotics so the new cells will grow with the included transgene and those that do not contain a transgene will die. It is a system that has been used in the production of wheat, sugar cane corn, papaya, soy or tobacco.
This method is the most commonly used, agrobacterium tumefaciensis used as a vector to transfer DNA into plan cells, naturally this type of bacteria T-DNA genes encode plant growth hormones and cause the production of a plant tumour called a crown gall disease.
Agrobacterium transfer DNA into plant cells in order to produce nutrients they need. Scientists have modified this bacteria in order to introduce proteins of interest by introducing genes of interest. Agrobacterium cell contents plasmid, this plasmid has a particular region which is T-DNA after this T-DNA is transferred into a plan to produce proteins of interest by humans and finally the new gene is incorporated in the new DNA of plan cells, and therefore we can get plants with genetic improvements, such as resistance to pests, better nutritional value, higher yield.
It is necessary to be aware of the risks of eating transgenic crops and such a high interference into natural production for obvious ethical reasons. Although since we have changed the course of our planet due to our human activity and global warming, we should be aware of the scientific advances which have the potential to solve the issues we have created whose plight is suffered outside of our European bubble.