Most consumers can’t explain what a GMO is, how it is made, or even what the letters stand for. Even for people with strong opinions on the topic there is a lot of confusion.
Since understanding agriculture is the goal of my Ag Leadership of Tomorrow class, we toured the Monsanto Research facility near St. Louis a few weeks ago. I was able to take a fair number of photographs and I’ll be writing three posts this week to share what we saw. Since there’s a lot of confusion let’s start with the basics. What is a GMO?
GMO stands for genetically modified organism. A GMO starts as a seed whose DNA has been mapped and whose traits have been carefully chosen in a laboratory.
You might remember that double helix DNA strand (on the table behind the guide). DNA is made of four nucleotides, A, T, C, and G. Each letter may only pair with one partner and the order of the pairs determines what protein is made.
The idea of a GMO is that proteins do all the jobs that allow us to be living, growing organisms: some make your eyes blue, some give plants the ability to photosynthesize, some are resistant to a specific disease or insect. In the past we counted on the process of reproduction to randomly select the DNA (importantly- proteins) that would be passed on to the offspring. Since we can now read the DNA of many plants we can be more specific about putting just the right protein into the offspring.
This chart shows the map of a corn plant. You can see the rows of genetic information– our guide called them “streets.” Each street has “houses” which is where the code for one protein lives. The “address” for that protein is important, as sometimes the code is turned on and sometimes it’s off. Remember that every cell in your body (or a corn plant) has the DNA for your entire body, but not all of it is being used the same way. Cells in your fingertips produce nails, cells in your eyes show a different color than cells in your skin, cells internally produce different proteins than cells in your skin.
Through the wonder of science we can now “turn on” proteins that increase yield, or move proteins to new houses to use water more efficently. There are some kinds of modifications that take proteins from an organism that is attacking a plant and put the DNA code into the plant to make it resistant to the disease. This tends to worry people, but keep in mind, the genetic modification for root worms is only “turned on” in the roots. The genetic modification for Round Up is in the leaf. It changes nothing in the corn kernel or soybean.
Also, despite what you may hear, GMOs are the most tested product available. They must be approved by the FDA, EPA, and USDA. (And I didn’t just link to those agencies, each click will take you to the page that describes their role in testing.) And here’s a quick article linking you to all kinds of long-term studies of GMO safety.
This video What is a GMO? An introduction from GMO Answers is a great start to understanding GMOs. Actually, the whole website is rather useful.
The awesome thing about proteins is they are responsible for all functions of life. The same research that leads to plant resistance to glyphosate may also lead us to proteins responsible for Autism and the process for Bt resistant corn may lead us to the process that ends Alzheimer’s.
I, for one, will be cheering that on.