The idea of genetically modifying plants used as food sources came to be around 1973. Immediately people were very excited, but soon the concept came to cause controversy. The overall idea of genetically modifying foods came into existence to make growing crops much easier, to help them resist diseases, and just make the food more aesthetically pleasing. The journey of creating genetically modified organisms to getting them legalized, to regularly producing them, was a long, tedious process, which involved an immense number of discoveries.
Over time, genetically modifying plants that people may consume came to be thought of as extremely dangerous, with claims being made that the plants would be toxic and harming the individual that consumes it, and possibly their offspring. However, none of those claims have been proven to be true. Recent discoveries have been strongly pointing toward the potential for modifying epigenetics as an alternative for genetically modifying the plants.
In ancient times, there was no concept of genetics, but selective breeding was their way of influencing the DNA.
They would modify a species by selecting and breeding individuals that had different traits. This was later described as “artificial selection” by Charles Darwin (Campbell et al. 258). Repeating that process over many generations can create drastic changes in the species. Though that process is not exactly what is considered to be genetic modification technology today, it is just about the earliest example of genetic modification. About 32,000 years ago, there were hunter gatherers in East Asia that a group of wild wolves joined as scavengers.
Over time, they were domesticated and eventually it led to something similar to the dogs we have today. Artificial selection has also been used in plants dating all the way back to 7800 BCE, based on findings at archaeological sites in southwest Asia. At those sites scientists encountered varieties in wheat that appeared to be the result of artificial selection. Though this is how the concept of genetically modifying organisms started, the birth of modern genetic modification came a quite a bit later (Maurer 1-2).
Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen had a huge scientific breakthrough in 1973 when they were able to engineer the first ever, successful, genetically modified organism. They created a method to specifically cut out a gene from one organism and put it into another. With this, they transferred a gene that had antibiotic resistance from one strain of bacteria to another. A year later, Rudolf Jaenisch and Beatrice Mintz performed a similar procedure in animals, bringing foreign DNA into the mouse embryos. In 1974, a prohibition on genetically modifying projects was observed, which gave time for scientists to meet up and figure out the next steps to this discovery, at the Asilomar Conference of 1975. Here, scientists, lawyers, and government officials debated about the safety of genetic modification. In the end, they concluded that genetic modification can continue, but would have to follow some rules. At the conference, they defined the safety and containment regulations to minimize the risks of each and every experiment. Along with that, they charged a principal investigator of every lab with ensuring enough safety for the researchers and with educating the community about major developments. The guidelines were expected to be flexible, and were planned to be influenced by further knowledge as the scientific community advanced in their discoveries and understandings of the topic (Maurer 2).
Later, in 1980, the United States Supreme Court made a ruling that made it legal for scientists from General Electric to patent bacteria that had been genetically modified to break down crude oil, to help with the oil spill mitigation. That ruling permitted ownership rights over genetic modification, which gave big companies the motivation to develop genetic modification tools that would be helpful and profitable. Then, in 1982, the United States Food and Drug Administration gave approval to the first ever human medication produced by a GMO. Later, in 1995, the first pesticide- producing crop was approved by the United States Environmental Protection Agency after immense testing. With just a few more discoveries and laws being passed, we achieved the genetic modification technology that we have today (Maurer 2).
Genetically modifying plants for consumption was introduced to the United States of America and created excitement and hope for many, and showed a great step in the scientific community. Soon after the discovery, groups of people came out reporting toxic effects caused my the genetically modified foods. A group called the Institute for Responsible Technology(IRT) reported that rats that had a diet containing a genetically modified potato ended up suffering effects on each organ system, after just 10 days of consumption. They claimed that the modification techniques used on the potatoes were specifically the cause of the illness in the rats. They took this claim and ran with it, trying to get others to get on board and go against genetically modifying the plants. Scientists from all around the world tested what the IRT had claimed. They did testing on many different types of crops, and there has not yet been any evidence to satisfy that genetically modified plants can cause organ toxicity or and other health problems. They then tested on a type of genetically modified potato, modified to have the bar gene. The bar gene is a gene that confers resistance to the herbicide bialaphos, which is the bar. The product of a bar gene is an enzyme that can detoxify herbicides and so protect the potato from any herbicidal treatment. In order to see if the genetically modified potato would have poor effects on the consumer’s health, like the claims by the IRT, scientists at the Nation Institute of Toxicological Research in Seoul, Korea gave rats diets with either a genetically modified potato, or a non-genetically modified potato, and they tracked the male and female rats. They examined the tissues and organs after the rats died. After examining the liver, kidneys, and spleen, there was no difference between the rats that had a genetically modified diet and the rats that had a non genetically modified diet (Norris 2-3).
Though it appeared false that genetically modified organisms had an effect on the organism that consumed it itself, there was still the concern that the offspring would be harmed. A group from South Dakota State University decided to feed cats genetically modified corn, called Bt corn. Bt stood for Bacillus thuringiensis, which is a microbe that produces insecticidal endotoxins, that has been used since 1961 as a pesticide for rodents. For each generation they looked into the fertility of the parents and compared health of the embryos form the parents that had the Bt corn and the ones that did not. There was no difference between them, meaning that consumption by pregnant mothers has no effect on the development of the children (Norris 3).
A final concern of consuming genetically modified organisms is that they may change the genes of both the organism being modified and the consumer. Changes in DNA are closely related to cancer and such diseases, so fear struck that it would have an effect on the health of those who consume it. A man named Bruce Ames from the University of California in Berkeley created a way to measure mutagenicity, which tracks increased rates of mutations in a living thing in response to a substance. A research group from Beijing, China used the Ames test for GMO tomatoes and GMO corn. They expressed the coat protein of a cucumber mosaic virus (CMV), which creates resistance to CMV. The test showed no relationship between the tomatoes or corn and mutations in the mice who consumed them (Norris 3-4).
Though it has never been shown that GMOs have an effect on the consumer or their offspring, there are still many concerns linked with the consumption of GMOs. Genetic modification, as of now, is very lengthy and costly. There have been recent discoveries in the field of epigenetics that make it seem very promising as a replacement for genetic modification. The field of epigenetics is offering the manipulation of the expression of the DNA in a plant, but temporarily. Crops that have been epigenetically manipulated have been noted to grow vigorously, even when in a drought, or stressed by heat or cold. In genetic modification, the DNA is changed, whereas in epigenetic manipulation, the ways that the genes are expressed or silenced is changed. A gene called MSH1 was recently discovered, and by silencing it, it has been discovered that it will trick the plant into thinking that it is growing under stressful conditions, causing them to activate many survival mechanisms, resulting in higher yields and powerful growth (Levine 1-5).
The future holds many possibilities regarding genetic modifications. The United Nations predicts that by 2050, we will need to have a 70% increase in food to feed the global population. That means that there will need to be innovative approaches to solve the problem. Genetically modified food, though many people believe that they are harmful on the human body, actually has many benefits. Genetically modifying plants can be extremely useful for situations as such, and scientists are looking to further their knowledge to use it for crop survival and nutrition. Scientists are also working on using genetic modification for disease and drought resistance, enhancing growth properties within animals, as well as strategies for more efficient pharmaceutical production. Scientists have also created a new technology, CRISPR, that makes use of bacterial systems to simplify the genetic modification and allows for easier development of the organisms. CRISPR could be used to speed up the developments of useful genetically modified crops, facilitate disease elimination, and even alter an entire ecosystem. There are also new breeding methods in the making that include the use of genetic modification (Maurer 3). For the future of epigenetic manipulation, many uses are expected to come in the future. One example they are looking into is “epigenetic seeds” that could help farmers with stressed plants due to droughts and heat changes (Levine 5).
The overall topic of genetic modifications intrigues me, and especially the effects they have on our bodies. Though I do not necessarily care about eating healthy the majority of the time, it really called out to me because I wanted to know why it was such a big deal. In the modern society we live in, more and more people are looking into what we consume; more people are becoming vegan, gluten free, going on extreme diets, etc.; and on top of that, technology has advanced significantly. Knowing that I could be eating something that had concerns attached to it that they could affect our DNA had me completely interested and utterly confused. On top of all of that, I thought it was just so interesting that scientists are working on things that go in and change the genetic makeup of organisms. Then finally, I just thought it would be interesting to know what scientist are doing to my food and know if my food is actually “natural”, as often marketed.
In conclusion, though it appears that genetically modifying food is completely safe, there are still many concerns attached to them. There have been concerns of them being toxic to the consumer and their offspring, and concerns that they can damage the consumers DNA. None of those concerns have been shown to be true, but people still see consuming genetically modified foods as risky. Since these concerns are still apparent, replacing genetic modification with epigenetic manipulation looks very promising, in that it can have many more helpful impacts and development of the technologies will be less costly and lengthy. While the future of genetic modification has lots in store, including CRISPR, and much more, the future seems to hold even more potential for epigenetics replacing genetic modification. The field of epigenetics will continue to expand, and new methods of epigenetic manipulation will result in many more unknown phenomena.