The use of biotechnology to genetically modify living organisms has garnered worldwide attention, as the application of biotechnology is linked to critical health, environmental, and commercial issues. One of the life sciences categories is molecular biology, which approaches the genetic information stored in DNA from a novel perspective.
Gene editing is a technique that aims to extract specific genes carrying desirable traits from an organism (human, plant, animal, or microbe) and artificially attach them to the genes of another organism to transfer that desired trait to the receiving organism. Biotechnology differs from traditional hybridization in that it transfers genes at the molecular level between different species using methods that do not occur in nature. Commercial GMOs are most common in the following products: tomatoes, potatoes, corn, cotton, rabbits, fish, cows, and birds.
Life sciences advanced dramatically during the twentieth century, including the fields of molecular biology and genetic modification. It all began in 1935 when Russian scientist Belozersky succeeded in isolating pure DNA for the first time. Later, in 1973, biochemists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen started the genetic modification revolution by transferring DNA from one bacterium to another and creating the first hybrid DNA (Recombinant DNA) in history. Boyer and Cohen’s success represented an advancement over Paul Berg’s original techniques developed in 1972.
Later, in 1975, at the Asilomar Conference, a group of biologists met with lawyers and physicians to discuss the potential biohazards of gene-editing technology and make recommendations to ensure the safe use of modified DNA. A timeline of the most significant events in the history of GM products provided below:
The FAO has recognized that GM products have potential benefits, including:
- Reduce the use of pesticides.
- Increase food production.
- Increase the nutritional value of food.
- Possess therapeutic and pharmacological benefits.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) negatively affect both human health and the environment. For instance, a genetic mutation with unforeseeable consequences could have an irreversible negative impact on the ecological balance. The following are the most significant scientifically proven and unintended environmental risks:
- Genetic pollution (interbreeding): This occurs when the natural genetic material of wild species contaminated with genetically engineered material via horizontal gene transfer (HGT). This type of pollution is impossible to eliminate, affects the entire food chain, and contributes to biodiversity loss; additionally, HGT may have the following potential consequences:
- Contamination of the native microbial community genetic material with the transgenes of GM plants
- Health and Environmental Effects: These include the emergence of a new disease, pest, or weed, as well as increased pathogenicity.
- Unpredictable and unintended consequences, such as modifying the recipient organism’s ecological niche or ecological potential.
- Super-weeds: HGT of pesticide-resistant genes from GM plants to wild weeds, resulting in super-weeds that grow fast and resist pesticides, which consequently leads to an increasing in the use of herbicides to eliminate them, increasing farmer costs, and endangering the ecosystem.
- Effects on non-target insects: Various proteinase inhibitors have been shown to have harm worker honeybee performance and behavior.
- GM species threaten wild species: GM organisms can grow two times faster and tens of times larger than natural species, giving them a competitive advantage in obtaining natural resources.
- Deforestation: some “Super-trees” can produce chemicals that kill natural insects and their surroundings, except for GM super-trees. Furthermore, no studies have been conducted to demonstrate that GM forests are safe for forest ecosystems.
- Endangering fertile lands: It is discovered, for example, that GM Klebsiella planticola bacteria were used to convert plant wastes into fertilizer, depleted natural soil nitrogen, and produce ethanol. Even after these microbes’ activity was inhibited, the pollution remained in the soil for eight months.
- Loss of genetic purity: Scientists predict that the rapid growth of GM foods will result in a loss of purity in seeds within the next 50 years or less.
The controversial use of biotechnologies to produce GM foods that have infiltrated the global market has raised many ethical, social, and religious concerns, particularly those related to consumer dilemmas. Although these products are still considered safe, scientists admit that there are gaps in knowledge regarding long-term health, economic, and environmental risks.
Furthermore, genetically modified foods may have significant unintended consequences. As a result, some steps must be taken, the most important of which are as follows:
- Biosafety: The assessment, monitoring, and management of potential risks associated with genetically modified (GM) products.
- Legislation: There is an urgent need to enact laws governing transparency, the right of consumers, and the right of the state to obtain complete information about these products.
- Consumer rights protection: According to the UN, the consumers have a basic right to know the type of food they consume, its safety, and its method of production, which leads us to the Label.
- Product labeling enables consumers to practice their moral, religious, personal, or health preferences, as knowing the ingredients of a product is the best guide for consumers to buy or not buy it. Muslims and Jews, for example, do not consume pork, whereas Hindus do not consume beef.
- Public Awareness: There is an urgent need to develop educational materials based on objective scientific evidence. The source of information must also be considered because it will influence the information presented to officials and consumers. As a result, biologists have a responsibility to their community to educate consumers and legislators on the alleged benefits of genetic engineering, as well as the risks and ethical quandaries that it presents, in collaboration with various media channels.