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The Debate We give you the facts, you decide!

Are GMOs an Environmental Threat?

1. Introduction

Approximately 80 percent of all biological applications used today with bacteria contain genetically engineered components. And that number is growing! But what do we REALLY know about the impact of genetic engineering on our lives and our environment? Here we present a number of difficult questions: What is genetic engineering and what are genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? Should we release these organisms to the environment? Are they safe? Are they natural? Are these bacteria the solution to the world’s biggest challenges or are they potentially harmful and will lead to myriad unanticipated side effects and risks?

2. What is Genetic Engineering?

Genetic engineering uses the technology of copying pieces of genetic code from one organism to another by means of the techniques of the molecular biology laboratory. The technology involves the isolation, manipulation and reintroduction of DNA into cells to express a protein. The aim is to introduce new physical or physiological characteristics and attributes, and to alter the organism to enhance certain traits. Genetic engineering is sometimes described as modern biotechnology, genetic modification (GM), gene technology, genetic mutilation, and gene splicing, and all these terms mean the same thing – the reshuffling of genes. For example, genes can be transferred from viruses to bacteria or from humans to yeast. This results in a genetically modified organism (GMO). Genetic engineering could radically impact human lives, yet people oftentimes have no say in it. It is a highly contentious issue, with accredited scientists arguing for and against it.

3. GMOs - Risks and Challenges

The final stage of placing the new gene into a receiving higher organism is rather crude. Even if the new gene is placed in a “quiet” area of the organism’s DNA, in which there are no known active genes, it is likely to interfere with the regulation of gene expression of the whole region. It could cause genes in the quiet DNA to become active, which would produce more interference and enhance the risks of unpredictable effects. At first glance, genetic engineering appears to open a limitless world of exciting possibilities for new research. However, it also raises serious questions: Is it safe to cross natural boundaries and create new species? What happens when recombinant DNA transfers to natural strains or we lose control over a GMO population? What happens if mutation occurs and the GMO changes its function? What effect will these changes have as they ripple through our intricate and profoundly interrelated ecosystem?

4. Science and Safety

4.1 Objective science provides partial knowledge

Molecular biology provides a great deal of information about the formation, structure and function of macromolecules in living organisms, but nothing about the organism's quality of life or its role in the environment. Of course, other sciences help to cover the territory left open by molecular biology. But even if we take all of the sciences together, our total knowledge of the laws of nature will not provide the full picture of the complexity of nature.

4.2 Technology and side effects

What happens when we use a technology based on the partial knowledge of natural law? When we pull the tail of a tiger, it is the tiger, not just the tail, that responds. The pull achieves its purpose when the tail moves, but then there is the side effect, a hail of teeth and claws! Similarly, when technology interferes with nature, while the intended effect may be achieved, it is inevitably accompanied by a cloud of unforeseen side effects. Every widespread application of modern science has become notorious for side effects. Coal-powered machinery brought smog, noise and physical danger. The chemical industries have created building materials, paints, glues, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, preservatives and plastics and the global pollution of our soil, water and air and a host of health issues along with them. Nuclear power brought potential for incredible power along with fear of annihilation, pollution of the environment by radioactive waste, and a global wave of concern for safe use of this technology. As technology advances, it utilizes more powerful laws of nature, and we find that it takes longer for natural processes to repair damage due to side effects. If we stop using coal in open fires, then smog can dissipate in a month. If we stop creating chemicals, it will take years for nature to recycle existing pollutants. If we shut down all nuclear reactors, it will take thousands of years for our radioactive waste to become harmless. With genetic engineering, we are manipulating the most fundamental level of living organisms. Potentially, genetic pollution could influence life on earth forever.

4.3 GMOs - Unpredictable and Unsafe

The role of individual genes in the overall viability of an organism is not yet fully understood. On the shaky basis of limited knowledge, the genetic engineer sets out to modify a living organism by adding or removing genes from its DNA. The basis for predicting the effect of the alteration is the following simple scenario: 1. The function of a segment of DNA in an organism, a gene, can be identified.
2. This gene can be transferred to the genome of another organism.
3. The original function of the gene will appear in the genetically engineered organism.
4. Observed side effects for the organism and the environment are not significant.

While genetic engineers may be satisfied that they can predict the results of gene transfer, critics note that this prediction says nothing about the impact of this transfer on the overall functioning of the cell, the organism or its environment. The function of most the genome is not understood, and the little that is cannot function without reference to the rest of the organism. Inserting genes into a new organism is inherently
imprecise, and genetic engineers have little control over where a gene will land when it is injected into a new cell. In summary, there is no basis for making a detailed prediction of the effects of genetic engineering. The successful transfer of a particular function should not be mistaken for a guarantee that there will be no side effects. In addition, justifying environmental safety of a genetically engineered organism is even more difficult than establishing the organism's viability in the environment.

5. The bottom line - are GMOs safe?

Certainly, scientists have discovered a lot about DNA. Laboratory techniques enable the precise cutting of DNA segments, and some field trials have been done. However, the technique for inserting a DNA fragment is sloppy, unpredictable and imprecise. Neither the total effect of the insertion on the host organism nor the effect of the genetically engineered organism on the environment can be predicted. The technology has not been around long enough to accumulate enough data, which is the essential and practical basis of safety in all applications of science. Therefore, there is no basis for meaningful risk assessment, and there is no recovery plan in case of disaster. In short, there is no foundation for asserting that GMOs are a safe technology.

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[1] A. A. Snow et al., Genetically engineered organisms and the environment: current status and recommendation. Ecological Applications 15 (2), 377-404 (2005).
[2] I. Cases, V. de Lorenzo, Genetically modified organisms for the environment: stories of success and failure and what we have learned from them. Int. Microbiology 8, 213-222 (2005).