Genetically Modified Organisms: What is there to know?


Alina Guerin

A pair of fresh apples bought from a local grocery store. The fruit on the left is organic; the fruit on the right is a GMO.

Alina Guerin, Staff Journalist

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are living beings that have experienced changes in their genetic pattern.  Such changes are commonly seen today in food plants and animals, and there has been speculation regarding whether or not GMOs are healthy for human consumption. According to a genetically modified foods poll written by Gary Langer, a nationally recognized public opinions researcher, 52% of Americans think GMOs are unsafe to eat with an additional 13% find themselves unsure about modified foods.

Yet researchers like Christopher Gerry believe GMO foods hold positive potential for the world Gerry is a fifth year Harvard PH. D student, and the author of the article ‘Feeding the World One Genetically Modified Tomato at a Time’.   

I became a scientist to learn how to alleviate human suffering and death from disease,” Gerry said. “So I was attracted by the potential of GMO technology to greatly improve public health and farming practices worldwide.    

Genetically modified organisms have been around for centuries and centuries, according to certified VHS chemistry and environmental science teacher Jacqueline Lewis. “GMOs came about because there is a larger population to feed and the amount of produce or food we were able to produce wasn’t sufficient enough for the amount of people we had to feed,” Lewis said. “So for example, actually, there was a huge development of GMOs that happened in Mexico because they saw that a lot of the population went hungry, so they developed GMOs to make faster and more productive produce.”   

According to Gerry these GMOs not made to hurt consumers, but to aid the hungry. Another location where GMOs aid struggling communities is in South Africa. “Many people in developing countries (especially children) get sick because their diets don’t include essential nutrients.” Gerry said. “For example, hundreds of thousands of children go blind every year due to vitamin A deficiency, which is a particularly significant problem in Africa, southeast Asia, and parts of South America.”

Yet as Langer’s poll shows, fear still surrounds these organisms. “There is a definite fear of GMOs,” Lewis said. “The fear is understandable because it sounds scary–science is altering our food.” Yet according to Lewis and Gerry, none of the concerns about GMOs have a scientific base, including the common misconception that separate gene groups are being pooled together. “All life on planet Earth shares the same DNA, so there is no such thing as ‘bacteria DNA’ or ‘corn DNA,'” Gerry said. “It’s all just ‘DNA.’”   

When someone says GMO, people may picture the image of a needle injecting ‘mystery chemicals’ into a tomato; however, this isn’t the case.  GMOs were first started by “selective breeding,” where scientists and farmers would take the best of their product and breed it for the next generation; over time, the food became bigger and more nutritious for the consumer. This was only the beginning of GMOs .  In the 1960s Paul Berg, a future Nobel Prize recipient, worked with fellow researchers and discovered a way to join two DNAs together. In Berg’s biography he explained what the process of joining two DNAs together is. My colleagues and I succeeded in developing a general way to join two DNAs together in vitro,” Burg wrote. “In this case, a set of three genes responsible for metabolizing galactose in the bacterium E. coli was inserted into the SV40 DNA genome.”

Lewis explained this further in a classroom friendly way. “Basically, what they do is splice DNA of a tomato, or whatever it is they’re trying to genetically alter.” Lewis Said “They unzip the DNA, take out pieces, and put pieces in and rezip it. So they just alter DNA, to make it grow faster or grow bigger or however they want it to grow.”