If you search for the term, “GMO” in google images, you will be confronted by a deluge of emotive imagery – of art – designed with the sole purpose of making people upset at genetic changes being made to food, and the organizations and people who are doing it. Predominantly, these images are variants of the syringe-in-tomato motif, or an eerie Doctor Moreau chimeric blend of animals and plants, and zombie children. These images are not meant to educate people, but merely to stir up the emotions about fear of hypodermic needles or other “ick factor” changes to our food. They don’t provide information or context, and indeed, can promote ignorance.
Despite the ubiquity of these images, you will notice that they have a surprising lack of diversity. Since the very beginning of the anti-GMO movement, the imagery used by this group has all but completely stagnated. Maybe there are more syringes in those tomatoes and that one crazy ear of corn, but most of these images are centered around a single, flawed theme: that GMOs are “Frankenfood.”
As a light-hearted way to poke fun at this, over five years ago I thought to personify it with a blog mascot based on the same name, and it still surprises me how well that artistic response has caught on. Currently, even, we’re 80% of the way to funding the expansion of this idea through our Kickstarter campaign, and after only six days!
As much as we talk about science on our blog, or during public presentations, what is really going to open up people’s minds to learning about this science is some good art that reaches people emotionally. And the emotions should not be the negative extremes of fear, cruelty, and anger, but positive ones of joy, fun, cooperation, and light-hearted humor. The goal should be to inspire more thinking, to promote – not demote – those higher functions. Last fall, we set out to find an artist who could help us make this kind of art, and in particular, translate our mascot into a new medium.
Word got around through social media, and we were introduced to Celestia Ward, who sent some excellent samples and sketches. We saw right away that she not only understood what we were trying to do, but also – was able to see ahead to how the medium of plant biology itself could be used to mold into a character that no other artist we had talked to was able to do. Since then, she’s been working on some great pictures for our blog, Kickstarter campaign, and some of our not-yet-released cooking videos. She is also, I might add, giving us a great deal for her talents.
Then around the December Holidays she sent me an email asking for some info on science. Her stepson had lots of questions about genetics and genetic engineering, and was trying to make sense of it for schoolwork, and Celestia wondered if I would be willing to help answer his questions. Of course! When I saw the questions, it reminded me of some of my own early curiosities about genetics, and I knew that these needed some good, thoughtful answers. Compared to the usual politically-charged questions we often get, it was refreshing to pour information into a thirsty glass of imaginative curiosity! You can read Celestia’s account on her blog in Putting my Art where my Heart is.
We’ve been wanting to do an “Ask Frank N. Foode™”-style series for some time, something that any scientist could sign up and contribute to, to help answer these kinds of questions. Now not only do we have some great questions to start off with, but thanks to Celestia, some great art to capture the imagination. I hope you’ll enjoy it!
1. What is it you exactly you do at your job, and the role it plays within the big picture?
I am a plant geneticist, and the kind of research that I do is to try to understand how plants work at a genetic level. As you probably know, every organism on this planet has DNA, and the instructions for building and maintaining living beings are coded into these DNA strands as “genes.” The different genes in each organism combine to give them their unique traits, and geneticists use those differences to figure out where the genes are that control these traits, and study how they work. The gene that I have been studying for my graduate thesis project is called “Sugary Enhancer” – which was discovered in the 1970s when a corn breeder named “Dusty” Rhodes found some sweet corn that was especially sweet. It has been bred into many different sweet corn varieties – you’ve probably eaten them – but we didn’t know what gene caused this. (It is not a GMO) Now we will be able to use our knowledge of this gene to make it easier to breed better sweet corn varieties, and also improve other crops as well. This is because the genes that make sugar and starch in corn kernels are very similar to the ones that make starch in say, potatoes, so you can see how basic discoveries in one organism can tell us something about others. The long term goal of all of this kind of research is to improve our crops to make our lives better.
2. What exactly are GMOs, I’ve read a lot of biased stories and possibly even a lot of fake ones, but I haven’t been able to really get a straight answer from any of them.
“GMO” stands for Genetically Modified Organism. These are organisms that have had their DNA altered by a process called Genetic Engineering. Because we discovered that the way organisms translate the genetic code within genes is essentially the same for all life, we can take genes from one organism and put them into the DNA of another to give it a new trait. That’s basically what genetic engineering is, and it can also be used to remove genes from an organism, or change and combine multiple genes into one to create a new one.
Plant breeders have been modifying the DNA of crops for centuries by crossing different plants in the same species, or even between related species, ‘mutating’ the DNA to cause random changes, or making a plant have an extra copy of all its own DNA (These are called polyploids – seedless watermelons are made this way). Since all crops we eat have been genetically modified in some way, most scientists use the terms “transgenic,” “genetically engineered” or GE to mean plants that have been modified by moving individual genes. Here is a picture of what the process looks like to make a GMO plant.
Here are some of the genetically engineered crops that are being grown:
- “Bt” corn and cotton that are resistant to insect pests that try to eat the plants. These use a gene from a bacterium that makes a protein called “Bt” that kills specific insects that eat it, but gets digested normally by everything else. These need less insecticide when they grow, and produce a little more because they are protected from bugs.
- Corn, cotton, canola, soybeans, sugar beets, and alfalfa that are “herbicide tolerant” so you can spray your field with an herbicide to kill weeds but not harm the crop.
- Papayas in Hawaii that are immune to a devastating viral disease.
- Bt insect-resistant eggplant has just been approved in Bangladesh.
And here are some GMO crops that have been developed and are being tested to see if they are ok to release:
- Apples that don’t turn brown when you slice them open.
- Potatoes that also don’t turn brown, and are safer to make French fries out of than normal potatoes.
- “Golden Rice” which produces beta-carotene – the orange stuff in carrots that our bodies turn into Vitamin A for our eyes. This is being developed for people in developing countries who can’t afford to eat much more than rice on most days, and are going blind or dying because they don’t get enough Vitamin A.
- Soybeans that make some of the same healthy oils that we find in fish.
Just to name a few!
3. Why do you think everyone is so against GMOs?
I’m still trying to figure that out, myself! It is a very complex topic, and most people are actually still undecided about them. But there are some people who are very much against them for one reason or another, and are very vocal about their opinions. Some, it seems, don’t understand the science, but others are worried about political issues, or whether the companies that sell them will get too much power, and some are concerned about safety and the environment. Because the GMO crops that are currently grown have traits that benefit the farmers who grow them, and don’t make the food taste better or be healthier, people who are worried about GMOs haven’t seen a benefit for themselves to accept them, and most everyone else hasn’t had the need to think much about them. I’m optimistic that some of this will change soon as more interesting GMO crops are developed, but any change in opinion will be a slow process.
4. What more do we do with GMOs that goes beyond our food supplies?
Genetic engineering is actually used in a lot of places – especially in medicine. It used to be that insulin, which people who suffer from diabetes have to take every day, was collected from dead animals. But today, most of this medicine is produced by genetically engineered bacteria. Vaccines that help our immune systems defend against diseases are also often genetically engineered. One of the odd things is that most people who are worried about genetic engineering applied to food are perfectly ok with using it to produce medicines.
Another really important use for genetic engineering is in basic biology research, like the kind that I do. Scientists who are trying to understand how cells and organisms work can use genetic engineering to directly change the DNA of an organism and make this process go faster.
It used to be that if you wanted to study the genes that code for an important part of an organism, you had to find a member of the species that lacked or had a mutated form – like a curly wing on a fruit fly. Then you would try to figure out what difference in the DNA caused that change. This has allowed us to figure out some basic genetics, but now you can potentially alter any gene with genetic engineering to study its role in the organism.
Some people are also using genetic engineering in art! There are purple carnations and a light blue rose, along with fish that glow under a blacklight – all GMO. When we see this technology become easier to use, we’re probably going to see people express their artistic creativity with life itself.
5. If we research further into GMOs, do you think one day that we can genetically modify humans to be able to survive in different conditions because they were modified for it?
Eventually, we may be able to safely modify the genes of humans, but such a thing is still probably a long way off, and there are more ethical questions involved. We could probably do it right now, just like we can do with mice, or plants, but if you make a mistake, you risk harming a person. But someday, the first genetic modifications we may see with humans would probably be to correct genetic diseases for future generations. But even if it is safe and accepted, that is still the beginning of the ethical debate. What if you could change the DNA of your children so they run faster, or become more artistic, or have blue hair, or change other traits that could affect them for their entire lives in ways that you wouldn’t be able to predict? We (usually) don’t let our parents choose our careers for us, but what about our DNA? What about people who don’t have enough money to afford the latest enhancements, will that put their kids at a disadvantage? (One of my favorite movies is GATTACA which is about this!)
There have already been some “GMO” humans born, but not the kind created through cutting and pasting DNA, but by combining cells to correct something that was missing. Another recent story shows that we can precisely”edit” the genes of monkeys, but the process is still wasteful and has a low chance of success. It will be a while before this could be possible – and ethical – to do with human beings.
We humans have been modifying our environments rather than ourselves because it is a lot easier, and faster. But what happens if some humans start to live in space? We’re not well adapted to zero-gravity conditions, so perhaps a few hundred years into the future we may find a way to adapt ourselves genetically? (Or we can discover how to make artificial gravity and save us the trouble!)
6. Has there ever been a time when a GMO has backfired or caused any sort of random mutation that would cause the human population to turn down GMOs?
If you search for “GMO” on google you might think that these sorts of things happen all the time, but so far there haven’t been any disasters like that. Every now and then there is a study that comes out that suggests that there was something unexpected that happened when making a genetically engineered crop, or when feeding it to test animals. Some have been highly publicized – like one last year that claimed that GMO maize caused tumors in rats. But when the scientific community examines these studies more closely, or tries to repeat them, they usually find that there were problems with the original study and reject it. That tumor study was actually just retracted by the journal that published it. From thousands of published scientific studies, we know that genetic engineering in crop plants is not an inherently hazardous process. There are some minor drawbacks we have found to some genetically engineered crops and how they are grown, but not the kind to justify some of the fears that people have.
7. How heavily does the US government invest into this field of science?
The US government spends a lot of money funding scientists who do basic genetic research to understand how genes work, and to develop new technologies. The genetically engineered papaya in Hawaii was funded by our government, and has been a very successful crop. But right now, most of the investment in developing new genetically engineered crops and getting them through the safety regulations comes from private companies. I’m actually working on a project to collect all the published scientific research on GMOs into one place to put on our website, and when I look at the funding sources for this research a large part of it comes from governments around the world, especially the United States. I couldn’t put an exact number on it, but one report on how much the European Union has spent studying genetically engineered crops reported that they spent 300 million Euros on it since 1982!
8. Why is GMO grown crops much better than Organic Farming?
That depends on what you mean by better! (And it depends a bit on who you ask.) I like to think about them as two different approaches to getting safer, more abundant (and delicious) food, but right now a lot of people think they are polar opposites. Organic farming focuses on trying to rotate crops, minimize the use of pesticide sprays (by banning most synthetic ones and using ‘natural’ ones), and recycle nutrients from manure and compost to reduce the need for fertilizers. But the main drawback to Organic farming is that it produces less food on the same amount of land, and makes the food more expensive to produce and to buy in the store. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, is merely a technique for changing the DNA of a plant so that it has a new trait you are interested in. That can be a trait that also reduces the need for pesticides, or helps the plants survive harsh environmental conditions like drought or cold. It has been shown to increase the amount of corn that farmers can produce on the same amount of land, but they don’t address all the problems that farmers face. What I think is strange is that very few people are talking about combining these approaches. Some farmers who grow GMOs are using more of the farming methods that organic farmers use, but organic farmers are not allowed to use GMOs if they want to sell the food as Organic. But maybe someday that might change?
9. Is it possible to be able to modify the genetics of an organism far enough to the point where it would be classified as its own species? Going back to the modified humans, where if we modified them enough where they could survive under the sea without equipment and from there just be able to colonize on the sea-floor, would they still be considered humans at that point or because of how different they would become in many different aspects, would they just their own race?
That’s a difficult question. Sure, it would be possible to change the DNA of a species enough so that you could consider it a new species, but the hard part would be to figure out where this line would be. We’re over 98% identical to Chimpanzees on the DNA level, even though we are a different species from them. That’s because we are different enough that we can’t interbreed with them. So let’s take your underwater civilization idea as an example. To live underwater, we might need some genes that give us gills, take away or reduce our lungs, and some fins for feet would probably also be a good idea just for starters. If people who are hybrids of regular humans and underwater humans are healthy, fertile, it will allow genes to move between the populations (this is called gene flow), and we’ll all still be the same species. But if the genes don’t combine well and people with half-gills and half-lungs can’t live, then there will be two human species on this planet. It all comes down to how well the genes from each population works together.
10. Is it possible to recreate animals of old using animals of today as a base and from there modify their genetics to what is similar to their ancestors(Ex/ Using a Tiger’s DNA, and modifying it to be similar to the Saber Tooth Tiger?)
It may be possible to do this, depending on how good the DNA samples of the extinct species are. After organisms die, their DNA starts to degrade, and unless something like ice or amber preserves them, it will be completely gone. Even then, the strands will slowly break into pieces. If the pieces of DNA are too short, we won’t be able to figure out how to put them back together again. Bringing a wooly mammoth or a Saber Tooth Tiger back would be a lot easier than bringing back a dinosaur. But we have a lot of species today that are in danger of going extinct and it would probably be a better use of our resources to help keep them from disappearing too! At least until we can stabilize our impacts on this planet – such as the impacts that farming has on other life. But maybe someone will discover that a species that went extinct eons ago would be an important addition to the ecosystem today?