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Year 10 Science AB Task



Although "biotechnology" and "genetic modification" commonly are used interchangeably, GM is a special set of technologies that alter the genetic makeup of organisms such as animals, plants, or bacteria. Biotechnology, a more general term, refers to using organisms or their components, such as enzymes, to make products that include wine, cheese, beer, and yogurt. Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be "genetically modified," "genetically engineered," or "transgenic." GM products (current or those in development) include medicines and vaccines, foods and food ingredients, feeds, and fibres. Locating genes for important traitssuch as those conferring insect resistance or desired nutrientsis one of the most limiting steps in the process. However, genome sequencing and discovery programs for hundreds of organisms are generating detailed maps along with data-analysing technologies to understand and use them.1 These plants have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content. The enhancement of desired traits has traditionally been undertaken through breeding, but conventional plant breeding methods can be very time consuming and are often not very accurate. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, can create plants with the exact desired trait very rapidly and with great accuracy. For example, plant geneticists can isolate a gene responsible for drought tolerance and insert that gene into a different plant.2 Genetically modified crops could contain the means to protect themselves against harmful insects and specific diseases. This would reduce the amount of protective chemicals used, which would be better for the environment and cheaper for farmers. In the tropics, which is often where the worlds poorest people live, there are a lot more pests. Growing pest-resistant genetically modified crops in tropical regions could provide food for millions of hungry people. Crops could be made resistant to herbicides, so that when the farmer sprays the area for weeds the food crop is left intact and everything else is wiped out. More effective weed control could lead to less herbicide being used. With average amounts of fertiliser, crops could produce super yields. Or they could grow significantly faster, reducing the time the plants are vulnerable to pests and disease and cutting down on costly chemicals. 3

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http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/gmfood.shtml 19/05/2011 http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/gmfood/overview.php 19/05/2011 3 Australian Knowledge: Genetically Modified Foods S and L Brodie 20/05/2011

As in the case of the cold-resistant soybean, crops could grow in extreme climates surviving frost and drought, living in salty soil, and so on thereby enabling previously inhospitable land to be cultivated. This would be particularly good for poorer nations. Foods might be able to acquire higher nutritional value or have added minerals or vitamins to counteract a dietary deficiency in an area where people are malnourished, or as a general advantage to consumers. Overall, crops could reliably produce good-quality, if not improved, food with fewer chemicals and cheaper production and manufacturing costs. No matter how beneficial GM (genetically modified) technology may be in the long run, it is impossible to ignore the fact that there is a downside, with examples that are both real and potential. First, there is the danger of accidents occurring in laboratories. For example, if an antibioticresistant gene escaped and eventually affected the human population, then how would doctors treat people for infections? Early fears that foreign DNA from GM foods could enter the human gut during digestion have largely been quelled. More research has shown that genes are destroyed by cooking, and that DNA in food is quickly broken down by the body. DNA from food cant be passed on in human reproduction. In this case of fish farms, GM fish are enclosed in nets. If the nets developed holes the GM fish would breed with wild fish, or simply wipe out the wild fish if the GM fish are bred to be large. Plants that are genetically modified to resist herbicides could accidentally cross with other plants. Would the new plants turn into super weeds and strangle all other plants in their way? Similarly, could plants that are modified to kill off certain germs accidentally give rise to supergerms and cause widespread epidemics? Accidental crossing had been shown to have happened, as in the case of a Canadian soybean crop discussed in the next section. A GM food plant that creates a poison could pollinate other crops and create food that is poisonous. There is evidence that toxins can pass from plants into the surrounding soil. Something that is unknown is whether the genetically modified organism that is released and planted will change and act strangely over generations. For example, genetic alteration of plants to resist viruses can stimulate the virus to strengthen, which could have a bad effect on other plants. A widespread criticism of GM foods is that they arent tested on humans. GM food producers counter this by saying that conventional foods like breakfast cereal, for example are not tested thoroughly on humans before being sold, and that any food eaten in inappropriate amounts or carelessly handled can cause harm. So far, no research has produced clear evidence that GM foods are any more dangerous than conventional foods.

Across all the points, the worst factor is the possibility of unforeseen effects. Scientists are constantly discovering new things about DNA, so there are no guarantees that it can be controlled in a laboratory and behave as planned. Food is produced on a very large scale, so the potential for widespread health problems is great. The clearest example is the growing death toll from mad cow disease, which can be traced back to the widespread use of a particular kind of food in raising beef in the UK. Unbeknown to the beef producers, some cows were infected with a disease called BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), which causes gradual brain disintegration, madness and death. 4

Australian Knowledge: Genetically Modified Foods S and L Brodie 20/05/2011


U.S. Department of Energy, Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms. (November 05, 2008) [Online] At:http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/gmfood.shtml Accessed: 20/05/2011

B. Whitman, Deborah, Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful? (April 2000) [Online] At:http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/gmfood/overview.php Accessed: 20/05/2011

Brodie, S and L (2001), Australian Knowledge: Genetically Modified Foods, Hong Kong: Trocadero Publishing