higean

Dedicated to protecting Hawaii from genetically engineered organisms through education and action.

What is Genetic Engineering ?

Genetic engineering refers to a new set of molecular techniques. With these techniques, scientists are able to take DNA from any species - bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans - and engineer them into another organism. An example would be selecting a sequence of DNA which engineers believe leads to the production of a chemical with antifreeze properties from an arctic fish, and splicing it into a potato or strawberry in an attempt to make it frost-resistant.

Haven't we been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years?

FNo. Traditional breeding and hybridisation are completely different from genetic engineering. In traditional breeding it is possible to cross a rose with another rose to get a new variety, but it is not possible to cross a rose with a potato or a mouse. Even when species that may seem to be closely related do succeed in breeding, the offspring are usually infertile-a horse, for example, can mate with a donkey, but the offspring (a mule) is sterile. 

No. Traditional breeding and hybridisation are completely different from genetic engineering. In traditional breeding it is possible to cross a rose with another rose to get a new variety, but it is not possible to cross a rose with a potato or a mouse. Even when species that may seem to be closely related do succeed in breeding, the offspring are usually infertile—a horse, for example, can mate with a donkey, but the offspring (a mule) is sterile.

Genetic engineering has only really been developed over the last 30 years. For the first time in the history of the world, scientists are now able to take DNA from any species and engineer them into another organism, introducing novel organisms that have never been a part of the human diet or the environment before.

How is genetic engineering done? Is it a precise science?

Plants and animals have natural defences that prevent them from incorporating foreign DNA into their cells. This prevents different species from reproducing in nature. Because of these natural barriers, genetic engineers have to force the DNA sequences they wish to introduce into the organism they are trying to engineer. The methods genetic engineers use to inset these foreign genes are incredibly imprecise.

One of the primary methods they use to insert the DNA is by using something called a "gene gun." This is an instrument that fires thousands and thousands of tiny pellets coated in the DNA sequence the engineers are trying to introduce into a plate of cells. They then hope that some of the DNA from those pellets will end up in the right place in the cells of the organism they wish to engineer. Engineers don't know where the DNA they fire into the cells will land; most of the DNA sequences are never incorporated into the cells at all, and those that are could be inserted in the wrong place, in the wrong order, or they could interrupt important DNA sequences that already exist in the organism.

This inexact method of DNA insertion is particularly troubling given scientists' lack of understanding about the way DNA functions. For a long time, geneticists believed that each gene corresponded to a particular protein; they thought, for example, that one gene would affect eye color, one would affect hair color, etc. The human body has 100,000 proteins, and so geneticists assumed we also had about 100,000 genes. When the Human Genome Project was completed in the year 2000, however, we discovered that we only have about 30,000 genes in our body. This means that genes act and interact in complicated ways we have never understood before.

The imprecision of this science coupled with genetic engineers lack of understanding about the way that DNA works leads to unintended consequences in the organisms that are genetically engineered. For example, the genetically engineered papaya, developed and grown here in Hawaii, was engineered to be resistant to the ringspot virus, which it is. Over time, however, it also became clear that the GMO papaya tree was a weak tree, more susceptible to the blackspot fungus. This unanticipated side effect of the genetic engineering process led farmers to spray their GMO trees with herbicides every 10 days, which is both toxic and expensive.

Genetic engineers do not understand the complex ways that DNA functions, and yet they proceed with genetically engineering plants and animals and releasing them into our environment, with unknown consequences. In the meanwhile, genetic engineering companies claim that this is a science more precise than the time-tested methods farmers have been using to grow and improve their crops for thousands of years.


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