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  • [Biotech/Economics]

    Why GMO Should Stand for a “Great Many Options”

    By Global Trends Editor Group

    “GMO” stands for genetically modified organism. The term refers to any plant, animal, bacterium or fungus whose DNA has been modified using genetic engineering technology.

    To date, the most economically important work has been done on plants used to feed people and animals. In the food industry, GMO crops have had genes added to them for various reasons, such as improving their yield, nutritional content, resilience to drought, pest resistance, and ease of farming.

    While it’s possible to naturally give foods desirable traits through selective breeding, this process takes many generations. Also, breeders may struggle to determine which genetic change has led to a new trait.

    Genetic modification significantly accelerates this process by using bioengineering techniques that give the plant specific desired traits.

    For example, one of the most common GMO crops is Bt corn, which is genetically modified to produce a natural insecticide called Bt toxin. By making this toxin, the corn is able to resist pests, reducing the need for pesticides. In fact, an analysis of 147 studies from 2014 found that this GMO technology has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37% and increased crop yields by 22%.

    Another gene called Ht makes crops more resistant to herbicides used to keep weed from crowding out the crops. For obvious reasons, using crops with both genes has come to dominate agriculture in major sectors like corn and cotton.

    GMO crops have also been modified with genes that help them survive stressful conditions, such as droughts, and resist diseases like blights, resulting in a higher yield for farmers.

    Together, these factors help lower the costs for the farmers and consumers because it allows greater crop yield despite harsher conditions.

    Additionally, genetic modification can increase the nutritional value of foods. For example, rice high in beta carotene, also called golden rice, was developed to help prevent blindness in regions where local diets are chronically deficient in vitamin A.

    Moreover, genetic modification may simply enhance the flavor and appearance of foods, such as non-browning apples, which stay white after being cut and exposed to the air.

    Such GMO crops are incredibly common in the United States, where at least 90% of soy, cotton, and corn are genetically modified organisms. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 80% of all foods in supermarkets contain ingredients that come from genetically modified crops.

    Furthermore, over 95% of animals used for meat and dairy in the United States eat GMO crops. So, if a meat product does not specifically indicate that it is “non-GMO” or “organic,” you can assume that it was fed GMOs.

    While GMO crops make farming much easier, there is some concern around their potential effect on the environment and their safety for human consumption despite the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Agriculture all concluding that GMO crops are safe for human and animal consumption.

    GMO crops have been widely embraced almost everywhere except Europe and have been largely responsible for rising agricultural productivity around the world. Beyond that, GMO technology involving bacteria, fungi, and animals is also becoming increasingly effective and commonplace.

    In fact, GMO bacteria are already the real workhorses of biotechnology. Formerly rare drugs and nutrients are now manufactured on an industrial scale by harnessing the capabilities of genetically modified bacteria. This has become increasingly commonplace since the 1970s.

    And it has remained largely noncontroversial because humans are isolated from these organisms by laboratory-style containment, as well as filtration and testing of the end-products. Furthermore, many of these organisms are intentionally engineered so they can’t survive outside of a special manmade environment.

    Fungi are also genetically modified to produce useful chemical compounds that can’t be readily synthesized from scratch. However, it’s much more common to grow naturally occurring fungi on an industrial scale in order to harvest drugs and other chemicals.

    However, the most controversial and promising area of GMO research involves animals. Here, the possibilities range from biomedical testing to food to transplant organs for humans.

    Consider some of the latest developments and their implications.

    Farmers have used selective breeding to try to make animals big, muscular, docile, and easy to raise, for centuries. But gene-editing tools like CRISPR now allow them to “fast-forward” the process.

    CRISPR has major advantages over previous gene-editing tools. For a start, it’s relatively cheap, quick, and easy to use. Newer forms of CRISPR allow scientists to do more to a genome, too. Some forms allow them to change the base letters of DNA, such as swapping a C for a T. Others let them insert entirely new genes.

    So perhaps it’s no surprise that scientists have started experimenting with CRISPR in farm animals. One popular target is a gene called myostatin, which codes for a protein that controls muscle growth. Interfering with this gene can lead to muscle overgrowth. In other words, you end up with big, muscly animals. And, eventually, more meat.

    Scientists have already experimented with using CRISPR to generate super-muscly cattle, pigs, sheep, rabbits, and goats. However, these studies have not had perfect results and these are not nearly ready for commercialization.

    Research in fish is has made far more progress. Using CRISPR to target the myostatin gene, scientists in Japan have generated red sea bream that are bigger and heavier, with 17% more muscle than their unmodified counterparts, despite being fed the same amount of food.

    Similar approaches have been used to beef up carp, tilapia, catfish, and other aquatic animals, including oysters. They’ve also created salmon that produce more omega-3.

    Other researchers are experimenting with different ways of using CRISPR to boost disease resistance. As reported recently in MIT Technology Review researchers inserted an alligator gene into catfish. It turns out that alligators have a particular talent for fighting off infections. This is a lot bigger breakthrough than most people would think.

    Today, around 40% of fish farmed worldwide die before they can be harvested. Imagine being able to prevent even part of that loss. Even a small jump in resilience could have huge impact for fish farming.

    You can’t yet find CRISPR animals as products on American supermarket shelves. But some are remarkably close. In 2021, Japan approved the sale of two kinds of CRISPR-edited fish. One of them is a beefed-up red sea bream. The other is a tiger puffer fish that’s also designed to be meatier.

    While GMO technology has great potential for eliminating hunger and disease, the biggest impact on the lives of Americans may be eliminating supply constraints on organ transplants. The fact is that the number of heart, lung, liver and kidney donors, pales in comparison to the number of candidate recipients.

    Researchers have been exploring the possibility of so-called Xenotransplantation for at least the past 20 years. And while the challenges are significant, they pale in comparison to the technological challenges of additive manufacturing of living organs and engineering long-lived mechanical organs. They also eliminate the moral problems associated with organ harvesting from humans.

    Long ago, researchers determined that pigs were the most compatible donor animals. After many years of gene modification, they were successful in transplanting pig hearts into baboons, which immune systems and hearts similar to humans.

    That work paved the way for a 2022 heart transplant from a pig with 10 modified genes to a human suffering from extreme heart failure. Initially, the transplant was a major success, as it had been in the baboons. However, after a few months an undetected “pig virus” infected the patient, leading to his death.

    Here again we’re seeing the enormous potential of GMO solutions, as well as the problems created when its implementation falls short.

    What’s the bottom line?

    GMO technology is indeed creating a Great Many Options which could potentially improve the lives of people in extraordinary ways. However, society needs to choose wisely among these options.

    Given this trend, we offer the following forecasts for your consideration.

    First, by the mid-2030s, GMO technology will have contributed enormously to our quality of life in fields ranging from agriculture to health care.

    Whether we’re talking about lower food costs, reduced use of pesticides, better flavor or better nutrition, GMOs will play a big part in improving our diets. Similarly, eliminating constraints imposed by limited numbers of donors for hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys and other organs will dramatically improve the quality of life enjoyed by our aging global population.

    Second, as with every game-changing technology, GMOs are likely to create some problems.

    Some countries will choose to “bury their heads in sand” and forgo the benefits. But most countries will choose to proactively manage the risks in order to realize the outsized rewards. And,

    Third, GMOs will play a major role in adaptation to climate change, if and when it occurs.

    Green plants and large aquatic mammals play a major role in locking away CO2. As explained in previous issues, GMO trees and shrubs are the cheapest and best solution to greenhouse gas emissions prior to widespread nuclear power deployment.

    Resource List
    1. MIT Technology Review. January 20, 2023. Jessica Hamzelou. How CRISPR is making farmed animals bigger, stronger, and healthier.

    2. MIT Technology Review. February 2, 2023. Emma Foehringer Merchant. How CRISPR could help save crops from devastation caused by pests.

    3. MIT Technology Review. January 10, 2018. Andrew Rosenblum. Meet the Woman Using CRISPR to Breed All-Male “Terminator Cattle.”

    4. MIT Technology Review. January 19, 2023. Jessica Hamzelou. These scientists used CRISPR to put an alligator gene into catfish.

    5. MIT Technology Review. December 11, 2020. Antonio Regalado. Gene editing has made pigs immune to a deadly epidemic.

    6. MIT Technology Review. December 11, 2020. Antonio Regalado. What’s on the GMO menu: fast-growing salmon and slow-swimming tuna.

    7. MIT Technology Review. May 4, 2022. Antonio Regalado. The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus.