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GM Science Made Easy

Introduction

By understanding GM science, some of the risks associated with GM foods become immediately obvious. It also helps us to understand how genetic modification is different from traditional methods of breeding, which have been employed for thousands of years.

And believe it or not, GM science is actually relatively easy to understand…. if we take it one step at a time!

Some Basic Biology

Most life forms including human beings are made up of cells. For instance, we humans have skin cells, heart cells, liver cells, brain cells and so on. In nearly all of our cells is a wonderful structure called DNA, often referred to as the ‘blueprint for life’. It is the DNA that consists of genes, and lots of them. In fact, the DNA from a single human cell will contain thousands of genes.

The amazing thing about genes is that they represent a code. The cell has the ability to understand and translate this code, which provides it with the information that it needs to make proteins. The main point to remember is this: genes code for proteins.

The importance of genes, and therefore also proteins, is realized when we understand that they are involved in every life supporting activity in the body. They also give us certain characteristics. For instance, certain genes code for proteins that give us our eye colour; certain genes code for proteins that give us our hair colour, and so forth. Some genes code for proteins that form digestion molecules (i.e. certain enzymes) or components of the immune system. If we are deficient in these then we would be unable to properly digest our food or we would be immediately prone to infections. Our genes are clearly therefore essential for our own survival.

With regards to plants, the situation is exactly the same. Genes code for proteins, which in turn give the plant its characteristics such as its texture, height, and colour. Also, just like in humans, genes are involved directly or indirectly in every life supporting activity in the plant.

So far that’s all there is to it. If we understand all this, then we can quite easily understand what genetic modification is all about.

GM Made Easy

The idea behind genetic modification is truly incredible: since genes code for proteins which lead to characteristics, if we insert a particular gene into a plant, then it should have adopted the characteristic associated with that gene.

But where do we get these genes from? The answer is that an organism is found with that specific characteristic or quality; the corresponding gene is identified; then, using DNA techniques, that gene is cut out and then transferred into the new organism in which that quality is desired. The inserted gene ends up in every cell in the new organism including the reproductive cells. This means that it is inherited by successive generations.

Let us take a look at some of the possibilities. If you insert a growth hormone gene into salmon you can have bigger salmon. Take an ‘antifreeze’ gene from an Arctic fish and insert it into a tomato and you might get tomatoes which are more frost tolerant! The idea that we can transfer qualities between species has gripped the attention of many, and the possibilities appear to be unlimited. Human beings, it seems, now have the ability to ‘create’…

 

The Problems

“For verily it is the Lord Who is the Master-
Creator, knowing all things.”
Quran (15:86)

 

There are numerous problems related to genetic modification. Many of the problems relate to the way that the technology can be misused. The forces that cause misuse arise from the profit-making potential of biotechnology; adding to the problem is the fact that the GM industry has historically had an intimate relationship with dominant political systems giving it greater policy influence. Already, misleading and nonfactual information has been put forward by some key people in these areas. However we will leave this topic aside here and focus on problems related to the technology from a genetic perspective.

The New Genetics

The model that genes code for proteins, which give the organism its characteristics, although true, is actually very simplistic. However it is easy to understand the other key points in this area and to relate this to our own life experiences. For instance, if genes give us our characteristics then why do our characteristics change over time when there is not usually a corresponding change in our genes?

Example 1: When we are young we may have brown hair. When we are older our hair may become grey.

Example 2: We may be thin. If we exercise our muscles, they can become bigger and stronger.

If our genes haven’t changed, then what has? The answer is that the expression of our genes is what has changed. Let us look at how this happens.

The main point to grasp regarding gene expression is that a gene can be switched ‘on’ or ‘off’. When a gene is switched ‘on’, it is expressed i.e. the corresponding protein is produced. In example 2 above related to exercise and muscle growth, training our muscles increases the expression of the genes that code for muscle proteins. Those genes will therefore be spending more time switched ‘on’, and that means more muscle proteins, and therefore bigger muscles! This illustrates an empowering fact that gene expression is not fixed, but is influenced by our experiences and lifestyle.

The last idea to grasp is that genes can influence the expression of one another! In the case of a plant, each cell contains thousands of genes. This means that the total number of interactions between genes is enormous! The genes work together in a very intimate and tightly knit way. They work as a team, each gene ‘playing’ in a particular ‘position’ on the DNA chain. The correct position of a gene is important in order to support the precise expression of that and other genes, which itself is essential for the organism to adapt to, and be an integrated part of, an evolving ecology.

The New Genetics and GM

 

GM imprecision

So, with this new knowledge, we are in a better position to understand some of the drawbacks of genetic modification. Let us take a look at a just a few of these drawbacks. Firstly, although genetic modification can target a specific gene and insert it into a new organism, with regards to current commercialised crops the inserted gene actually ends up in a random position. Bearing in mind that genes work together as a team consisting of thousands of players, each player in a unique position, the randomly inserted gene can disrupt the expression of other genes. The overall effect of the insertion is therefore impossible to predict, and would in fact be the case even if the position of gene insertion was controlled.

The GM assault: Forcing the ‘on’ switch, & energy theft

Another problem is with regards to a so called ‘promoter’ gene. The promoter gene is transferred along with the gene coding for the intended characteristic. It was explained earlier that genes can be switched ‘on’ and ‘off’. A ‘promoter’ gene acts as an ‘on’ switch. This forces the inserted gene to stay switched on, which means that the intended characteristic is constantly expressed. However, if, as in the case of Monsanto’s herbicide resistance GM soybean, a promoter gene (in this case from a virus) is inserted along with the herbicide resistant gene, not only will the transferred gene be forced on, but neighbouring genes can be as well.

This leads to disruption in the otherwise beautiful and intelligent expression of the organism, the consequences of which are unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Forcing genes to stay switched ‘on’ may also ‘rob’ the organism of metabolic energy, thereby diverting it away from vital processes. Although genetic modification is put forward as a “technology” the reality is in fact that the more sophisticated, finely tuned technology naturally inherent in the DNA of living organisms is actually overwhelmed and disrupted by an aggressive method (i.e. GM) that is far more imprecise and crude by comparison.

In addition the new gene is usually a foreign gene. It is not normally found in that life-form. For example, a genetically modified soybean ‘approved’ for human consumption has had a gene from a bacterium and a virus artificially inserted into it.

Glorifying God, no more?…

“…there is not a thing
But celebrates His praise
And yet ye understand not
How they declare His glory!”
Quran (17:44)

 

A helpful analogy to use to understand the GM process better is that of a piece of music. Let us imagine that the genes in the soybean represent musicians in an orchestra, and that they are playing a beautiful and harmonious piece of music. The GM process can be viewed as throwing in an electric guitar player into the orchestra. The guitar player plays the same note, over and over again regardless of how the orchestra is playing. The orchestra can still ‘play’ but we will not be hearing music! Instead we will be hearing something far less beautiful and whole. The overall piece will have been disrupted. In parallel, genetic modification leads to an inserted gene working to express the same characteristic repeatedly, regardless of its surroundings. It results in the undermining of wholeness and beauty, and at a very profound level of life.

Containing the mistake

Additionally, pollen from many GM crops can travel far and contaminate non-modified relatives as well as honey; any mistake may therefore be impossible to contain. The consequences of genetic modification could affect the health of humans, other living creatures, and the natural order, for generations.

Yet, the invitation exists for us to awaken and become active participants, working together according to our circumstances to create the kind of world we really want for future generations. All that we need to do is make a conscious choice or intention to take up this invitation and activating the necessary will.

The last point that we will examine within this topic is the following question…

 

Is GM the same as traditional breeding?

Traditional breeding

Genetic modification, while might be said to be precise, can actually be seen to be extremely clumsy when finer details are understood. On the other hand, if we look at the genetics underlying traditional breeding, it is impossible not to marvel at yet another aspect of creation coordinated with beauty, precision and perfection.

Traditional breeding involves natural reproduction. Within the sphere of ‘traditional breeding’ is ‘selective breeding’. The aim of selective breeding is to bring out, or select, a certain combination of characteristics found within a species. For example, a small, but sweet tomato may be crossed with one that is larger, but sour, in the hope of producing offspring which are both large and sweet. Here we are selecting for the large and sweet quality in tomatoes because this is the type of tomato some people may prefer.

 

Across the species barrier

The first thing we can appreciate is that such a gene exchange can only occur between related species. After all, there are natural barriers in place which prevent, for instance, the tomato from being crossed with a banana, or a fish. Genetic modification transgresses these natural barriers and just from this perspective is very unlike traditional or selective breeding.

The position of the gene in its team

By appreciating that each gene works best when in it is in its natural position on the DNA strand, we can take our understanding even further. A gene in its natural position supports the gene to be coordinated appropriately. In natural breeding, whereby an organism will have some genes from the ‘mother’ and some from the ‘father’, complex processes come into play that help to maintain the position of each gene during gene ‘shuffling’.

If we use the team analogy, this time considering genes to be like players in a basketball team, natural breeding is like having about half of the players substituted, whereby each position taken by a substitute is the same one in which they are already specialised to play in. Even though the team now has some different characteristics and will play differently, the integrity of the team is still maintained; they can continue to play in a coordinated way. However, through genetic modification, the inserted gene is not only foreign, but ends up in a random position in the DNA strand, and is forced to stay switched on through a process that can impact on neighbouring genes. This leads to potentially adverse affects that are unpredictable.

A shift in the framework

Going back to the example of selective breeding brought up earlier, in crossing the two types of tomato, it is of course impossible to predict exactly the characteristics of the offspring. They may or may not be sweet and large. They may be a slightly different colour. However, the integrity of gene expression remains intact in this kind of breeding. The range of unpredictable effects therefore is contained within a certain framework of possibilities.

Genetic modification also results in unpredictable effects, but since the inserted gene is foreign, and the integrity of genetic functioning is disrupted during gene insertion, these unpredictable effects are potentially outside of the framework that is present when natural breeding methods are employed. This leads to new risks and it is thus entirely appropriate to question the safety of GM foods.

It is very clear that genetic modification and natural reproduction are distinct entities, and we hope that this has been explained in an understandable form through the above text.