Bio Professor Talks GMO Implications

The FDA does not require labeling of genetically modified foods. 
(Emily Tiberio /The Observer)

The FDA does not require labeling of genetically modified foods. (Emily Tiberio /The Observer)


Genetically modified organisms, (GMOs) are a hotly debated facet of the modern world, yet as technological advances continue, the nature of GMOs is changing. Researchers at Harvard University and Yale University have created a type of genetically modified organism which, according to their study, should end a substantial amount of fear that surround GMOs. This organism is dependent on synthetic amino acids and cannot survive without them. 

According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, GMOs are present in 75 to 80 percent of processed food in the United States. According to The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), does not require labeling of genetically modified foods. Sodexo representatives did not return the request to confirm or deny if GMOs are used in Sodexo food. 

Steve Franks, Ph.D., associate professor of biological science, provides a greater understanding on synthetic amino acids and what this means for GMOs. 

The Observer: What exactly are synthetic amino acids? 

Dr. Steve Franks: They are also called nonstandard amino acids. These are amino acids that are not synthesized by organisms in nature. What they did is they engineered this organism to be dependent on it. So [Yale and Harvard researchers] basically needed to provide that nutrient for the organism to survive. 

The Observer: How would this stop GMOs from spreading in nature? 

Dr. Steve Franks: Yale and Harvard researchs talked about this more in their paper. The idea is if you engineer this organism to be dependent on a substance that is not found in nature, if it were to escape, then it would not survive because the substance is not present in nature. Although there is still possible ways, and they talked about that in their article, there can be horizontal gene transfer or it could obtain the substance from another source. With horizontal gene transfer the organism could escape and get genes from other organisms that allow it to survive from naturally occurring amino acids. They looked at these possibilities and they found that the probabilities of those things happening are low. Even in a competitive environment, if they were able to escape and survive, they would not outproduce native organisms. Those are the reasons why they said their advancement would keep it from escaping. It provides additional safeguards. 

The Observer: Do you think GMOs are inherently dangerous? 

Dr. Steve Franks: It is a big political issue. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the issue. It is an important issue and something people should be concerned about for a number of reasons. People talk about genetically modified organisms meaning ones that are directly genetically modified, however, when you think about it in a broader sense all crop and livestock organisms are genetically modified by humans. They all have been modified through traditional breeding. Everything already is modified. There is additional danger when you introduce novel genes, especially genes for herbicide resistance. Because that has been shown that genes can escape. Plants can escape and become feral or the gene can escape into related plants and then all of a sudden you have weeds that are resistant to herbicide. There are a lot of environmental concerns with genetically modified organisms. People are often concerned with health effects of GMOs and so far there really are not any evidence to suggest that genetic modifications used so far are producing food that are less healthy. It is possible that could be the case but it does not seem like it is.