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Genetically modified organism (GMO), organism whose genome has been engineered in the laboratory in order to favour the expression of desired physiological traits or the production of desired biological products. GMO has long been the practice to breed select individuals of a species to produce offspring of the desirable traits. It is used in conventional livestock production, crop farming and even pet breeding. In genetic modification, the mechanism used for creating a genetically modified organism is called the recombinant DNA technique. It involves combining strands of DNA from different sources to create a new DNA molecule that has a different combination of genes than that, which occurs naturally.
There are some scientific methods included in producing GMOs, such as recombinant DNA technology and reproductive cloning. Recombinant DNA technology involves the insertion of one or more individual genes from an organism of one species into the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) of another. On the other hand, reproductive cloning technology generates offspring that are genetically identical to the parent by the transfer of an entire donor nucleus into the enucleated cytoplasm of a host egg. The first animal produced using this cloning technique was a sheep named Dolly, born in 1996. Since then a number of other animals, including pigs, horses, and dogs, have been generated using reproductive cloning technology.
Cisgenic organisms and transgenic organisms are the two classes of genetically modified organisms. Cisgenic organisms are genetically modified organisms that result from the combination of different strands of DNA, which all originates from the same, or very similar, species. The entire DNA used in the process comes from organisms that are very closely related, usually defined as organisms that are able to breed together. Transgenic organisms are genetically modified organisms that include DNA from two different species. Transgenic microorganisms are the most commonly created transgenic organisms. The simple DNA of bacteria lends itself to relatively straightforward recombinant DNA methods.
GMOs produced through genetic technologies are playing a very important role in agriculture, medicine, research, and environmental management. Although GMOs have benefited human society, some disadvantages exist. Therefore, the production of GMOs remains a highly controversial topic in some countries.
2. Examples of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
Many of our common crops, such as corn, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, and soybeans, are genetically modified. The majority of these crops were herbicide-resistant as well as insect-resistant, while the others may contain increased nutrients such as vitamins, produce yield earlier, or are able to survive weather extremes.
Genetically modified tomatoes were introduced to the market in 1994, becoming the first commercially grown transgenic crop. They have longer shelf-life than the average tomatoes as they produces less of the substance that causes tomatoes to rot, so remains firm and fresh for a long time.
In addition, transgenic corn is resistant to commercial herbicides such as glyphosate or glufosinate. It is also insect resistance by producing a poison, which kills harmful insects. Vitamin-enriched corn contains increased amount of vitamin A, vitamin C and folate compared to the normal corn.
Another example of GMO is squash. Squash belongs to the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes pumpkins, gourds, zucchini, cucumbers and melons. Genetically modified squash have resistance to the common squash viruses, namely watermelon mosaic virus, zucchini yellow mosaic virus and cucumber mosaic virus.
Other than crops, farm animals are also genetically modified to mature in a shorter time period to minimize expenses and increase profits for farmers, as well as to be resistant to certain diseases. For example, genetically modified cow is resistant to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease).
One of the examples of increased growth rate in genetically modified animals is fish including salmon and carp. One-year-old salmon fish with growth hormone chimeric gene are able to grow as large as 13 times that of the non-transgenic salmons.
Other than that, chicken that can produce eggs containing human proteins has been created by British by transferring DNA into the yolk of a fertilized chicken embryo. The proteins can be harvested and purified for treatment of diseases such as multiple sclerosis or cancer.
3. Advantages of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
In order to ensure an adequate food supply for this booming population is going to be a major challenge in the years to come. GMO can meet this demand due to its special characteristics.
Firstly, GMOs are pest resistance. Pests can cause large financial loss to the farmer. Pesticides that generally used by farmers are health hazarding and causes pollution. Pest resistance can reduce the use of pesticides. Thus, GMOs is healthier to eat and bring less pollution to the environment.
Second, GMOs are herbicide and disease resistance. The control of weeds actually is not cost-effective because farmers have to spray large amount of herbicides on the weeds and care has to be taken to avoid the herbicides from harming the crops. Hence, GMOs are more cost-effective and easier to control the weeds and less concern is needed to cope with the diseases caused by viruses, fungi and bacteria.
Thirdly, GMOs are drought tolerance/salinity tolerance. As the world population grows and more land is utilized for housing instead of food production, farmers will need to grow crops in locations previously unsuited for plant cultivation. Creating plants that can withstand long periods of drought or high salt content in soil and groundwater will help people to grow crops in formerly less arable places.
Next, GMOs have better nutritional value. GMOs are incorporated with other additional vitamins and minerals. For example, blindness due to vitamin A deficiency is a common problem in third world countries. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Institute for Plant Sciences have created a strain of “golden” rice containing an unusually high content of beta-carotene (vitamin A).
Lastly, GMOs are also useful in pharmaceutical field. Medicines and vaccines often are costly to produce and sometimes require special storage conditions not readily available in third world countries. Researchers are working to develop edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes. These vaccines will be much easier to ship, store and administer than traditional injectable vaccines.
4. Criticism Against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
There are several concerns that arise despite the advantages of GMO. The three fields of concern include environmental hazards, human health risks, and economic concerns.
One of the environmental hazards consists of gene transfer to non-targeted species. There is a possibility of genetically modified plants cross breeding with weeds to produce weeds to produce a new genetic strain of weeds known as “Superweeds”. Next concern is the reduced effectiveness of pesticides. The pesticides strains from GMO might be able to pass on to pest after consuming GMO; thus, causing pest to have the same resistant genes to pesticides. These pests are then termed “Superpest”.
The human health risks also posed a major concern among people. The long-term side effects after consuming GMO are still unknown. There is still the question of whether the genetically modified strains are able to pass on to humans after consuming GMO. People are getting worried that the anti-bacterial strain in the GMO might be passed on to humans and cause a disruption in our immunity against certain types of bacteria. There is a possibility that introducing a new gene may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in prone individuals.
In addition, there are also economic concerns involved. The cost involved in research and developing of GMOs are high. Many of these GMOs have been patented. Farmers from the third world countries are worried that the price of the patented GMOs would be raised so high that they would not be able to afford it. Furthermore, patent violation has been a growing concern to agribusinesses. Some companies have introduced “suicide gene” into plants. “Suicide gene” only allows plants to be viable for one season and the seeds produced after are sterile. Therefore, farmers have to buy fresh seeds every season and this causes an issue to the farmers from the third world countries.
5. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Malaysia
Malaysia is among the 55 nations in favour of adopting international guidelines on labeling of all genetically modified food. Several genetically modified crops containing traits of value have been produced at the experimental stage.
At the Malaysia Agricultural Research and Development institute, rice has been successfully modified to resist the Tungro virus and papayas manipulated to resist ring-spot virus infection and to have a prolonged shelf life. Other crop such as pineapples is manipulated to resist “black heart”, bananas and papayas for delayed ripening and chili for virus resistance. Malaysia is also developing genetically engineered oil palm with a focus on increasing value-added products from the palms such as high oleate and high stearate oil, nutraceuticals (vitamin A and vitamin E) biodiesel and bioplastics.
Genetically modifying technology has been in introduced to assist the development of animal husbandry. Besides that, Malaysia has released 6,000 genetically modified mosquitoes designed to combat dengue fever at an uninhabited site in the central state of Pahang.
The biotechnology sector faces a challenging future with increasing global competition. Malaysian government will, under the ninth Malaysia plan, implemented the strategic thrust of the national biotechnology policy, with the active participation of private sector. With the recognition as the world’s halal hub, and given importance attached to the biotechnology industry, Malaysia is poised to introduced biotechnology products with GM label and halal certification.
In the future, there would be a wide range of crops that are resistant to pest, diseases, and herbicides. The crops would also be high in nutrition value to suit our body system and could be ‘designed’ to accommodate whatever type of climate changes. The future of GMO is still yet far to go. GMO is a giant leap in the agricultural sector. It is now up to us to decide on how GMO should be used, whether for the good of mankind or the destruction of us all.
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