Genetically modified snap dragons don't breathe fire

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So last night I got into a bit of a discussion with my mom about the so-called dangers of genetically modified (GM) food. She's a pretty spiritual person, takes all kinds of vitamins and stuff from natural health food stores, and is in to holistic healing. Needless to say, she was pretty against it, but I'm not so sure her fears are justified.

GM food, and organisms in general seem to be getting a pretty bad rap. There's all sorts of stigma and sci-fi-like ideas associated with this emerging field. (I say "emerging" now, but I'll debate the validity of that term later on.) People hear the words "genetically modified" and they picture man-eating plants and unholy mounds of flesh with extra mouths and a nasty disposition. The fact of the matter is, these fears are pretty outrageous and based on ignorance and anti-GM propoganda.

Now I'm not going to sit here and try to tell you that there are absolutely no drawbacks or possible problems associated with GM foods, because there are. It's true that there could be unexpected allergens or other somehow toxic chemicals produced by these new organisms. It's also true that a certain GM organism could be extremely successful in a given environment and out-compete the native plant-life. The thing is, any of this could be true of any naturally occurring plants as well. Environmentalist are all too familiar with the problem of invasive species. The point here being that these aren't problems that are unique to GM organisms.

I think there's a common misconception out there that DNA is unique to it's owning organism. While it is true that the exact sequence of DNA is unique to an individual organism, one has to remember that a huge amount of our DNA is shared across all sorts of organisms. At the most basic level, all DNA, be it human, dog, dandelion, mold, etc., is made up of the same stuff. 4 basic amino acids are all it takes to encode how to make a blue whale, or how to make a potato. They are: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. So when you take some DNA from one organism and splice it into another, you're really just sticking in a different combination of the same stuff that's there already. As far as the DNA is concerned, there is nothing sinister going on at all. How this new DNA is interpreted has more to do with what's around it and where it is, rather than what it is. This is why you won't get a frog leg growing on a tomato just because you've stuck some frog DNA in there.

Another thing that people don't seem to understand is that humans have been "genetically modifying" organisms to suit their needs for thousands of years. The only difference is that we've been restricted to selecting for traits that we like and breeding those to slowly push an organism towards the form we want. One needs look no farther than the family pet to see how much we can twist and mold life. All dogs, from the mighty chihuahua to the graceful great dane, are the same species. In fact, they're all just a sub-species of wolf. Corn is another good example. There are hundreds of varieties of corn (or maize) many of which have a pretty exotic or "mutated" look to them. The origins of domesticated maize aren't really known, but there is speculation that it's actually a hybridization of two different plants.

If one bears in mind that humans have been directing genetics to suit their needs for thousands of years, and that all DNA is made up of the same stuff, then one has to ask couldn't these GM foods actually occur naturally through random mutation? Granted, in some cases the odds are pretty slim, but it's not impossible.

The potential benefits of GM foods should not be discounted either. As our population explodes beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, the need for hardy, high-yield crops becomes more acute. The old-fashioned way to get these types of plants would be to choose the hardiest and most productive individual plants and cross them. We are then left hoping that at least one of the offspring through random genetic mixing has some of the traits we are looking for. Repeat this process for a few thousand years and you basically get the produce we eat today. Something tells me we don't have another thousand years to wait.

So I'll say again, I'm not denying the potential problems of GM foods. There are very real issues that we should be mindful of, but we have to make sure that we're realistic about what these issues are. We need to be careful not to be swept up in the wave of hysteria that comes along with the idea of genetic modification. Educate yourself. Educate those around you. Debate, but debate the facts, not the fears.


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