There Is Nothing Unnatural About GMOs

There Is Nothing Unnatural About GMOs
Mark Steil/Minnesota Public Radio via AP
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Anti-biotech activists have long argued that genetically modified food is “unnatural.” The Non-GMO project, for example, claims that manipulating the DNA of living organisms “...creates combinations of … genes that do not occur in nature...” This fear of the unnatural is the foundation for every anti-GMO argument that you’ll find online.

However, the activists have framed the discussion incorrectly. Creating transgenic crops is a perfectly natural process, because techniques for moving genes between species mimic the behavior of organisms like bacteria.

Certain bacteria and viruses are always at war. In fact, there are viruses called phages that infect bacteria and use them to replicate. The viruses land on the surface of bacterial cells and inject their DNA into the cells, essentially turning bacteria into virus factories. But bacteria aren’t defenseless against these assaults. They utilize proteins called restriction enzymes to chop up the DNA of invading viruses before they can infect the bacterial cells.

Cleverly enough, phages evolved a method to avoid being hacked to pieces: they edit their own DNA so the bacteria can’t recognize them as invaders.

Werner Arber and several other scientists who discovered this virus restriction mechanism were eventually awarded the Nobel Prize, because their research laid the foundation for modern biotechnology.

Building on Arber’s work as well as experiments performed by Paul Berg and Hamilton Smith, biochemists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen showed in 1973 that a newly isolated restriction enzyme could be used to cut a DNA strand at specific nucleotide sequences. The pair of scientists also found that another enzyme called DNA ligase could be used to attach this cleaved DNA strand to the genome of another organism.

Boyer and Cohen demonstrated this technique in the lab by taking the genes for antibiotic resistance out of two strains of bacteria and transferring them to a bacterial strain that naturally lacks antibiotic resistance. They then exposed this modified strain of bacteria to both types of antibiotics and found that neither drug could kill the bacteria.

This story offers a fascinating example of how basic research can lead to revolutionary discoveries. But beyond that, there are a few important points to draw out of this science history lesson that directly apply to the current debate around biotechnology.

The ability to cut and reattach DNA is an evolved trait that bacteria and other prokaryotes use to fight off infection. Scientists discovered this genome altering mechanism and put it to work to produce new foods and medicines--they didn't create it artificially. The genes, enzymes, and organisms that allow us to recombine DNA exist in nature.

To go one step further, this type of genetic modification is possible because all living organisms share the same genetic code, DNA. With a few exceptions, every species replicates its DNA and synthesizes proteins the same way. This is why, for example, we can take the human gene that controls insulin production, add it to a bacterial cell, and make as much of the hormone as we need to treat diabetics.

Defenders of biotechnology rightly point out that all food is genetically modified in some way, even the organic kale that hipsters rave about. The gene altering mechanism described here illustrates a similar fact: the most controversial elements of biotechnology are the result of basic experiments on some of the simplest life forms in existence.

So when you see anti-biotech crusaders fretting about tomatoes genetically modified to taste better or crops engineered to resist glyphosate, remember that the scientists who “created” these transgenic plants started with completely natural genetic tools that have been used for millions of years.

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