GMO — these are three little letters that can be a controversial topic of discussion.

The acronym is often misused and misunderstood. GMO stands for “genetically modified organism,” but aren’t all organisms genetically modified? Grocery store items can often be found with a label advertising a product as non-GMO, even though that is technically inaccurate. A person holding non-GMO corn in their hands must realize that corn is a product of substantial genetic modification. It is not the teosinte it was artificially selected from, for sure. Watch the HHMI video “Popped Secret: The Mysterious Origin of Corn” to learn more about how it came to be.

Most use the term GMO today to refer to something that has recently been modified by humans and not by nature. One can genetically modify an organism by artificial selection. The cross-breeding of the desired traits accomplishes this process. Corn, as we know it today, began as grass and that grass still exists, but it looks little like what we call corn. Most of our “crops” live nowhere in nature; they were all genetically modified. Artificial selection is also how you get a teacup chihuahua from a population of wolves.

Selective breeding for desired traits is a very time-consuming process. Today we have many tools that can speed the process up. Ever since humanity comprehended a universal genetic code, we began to tinker with it. We have given bacterial genes to plants that make them herbicide- and pesticide-resistant and have even given spider silk genes to goats. Milk the goat and get spider web proteins. Science has also engineered plants to grow in dry conditions and have improved nutrient levels. Golden rice was genetically modified to make and store beta carotene. It was created to help rid the world of horrific vitamin A deficiencies. If you go to the webpage “goldenrice.org,” you can read more on the science, safety and goals of the golden rice project.

As our tools for genetically modifying organisms progress, we should proceed with caution, but the potential is great.

A recent PNAS article published a few days ago, titled “Overexpression of zmm28 increases maize grain yield in the field,” demonstrated that a new GMO version of corn can improve crop yield by 10%. You can read the full article for free if you Google the title. This newly modified zmm28 corn has bigger leaves, enhanced photosynthesis and enhanced use of nitrogen from the soil. The team up regulated zmm28 with a new promotor region. Zmm28 belongs to a group of genes known as MADS-box transcription factors that control plant development, and by increasing the gene’s expression, they have made the plant produce more grain.

Imagine tweaking many crops to yield 10% more product. We are talking about scientific solutions to feed an ever-growing population.

Starvation is already a significant concern, and by utilizing modern science and common sense agricultural practices, we may be able to supply our growing population with food. Our ancestors used tools to modify organisms for thousands of years, but new tools like, CRISPR, offer precision and speed far beyond artificial selection techniques.

Proceed with caution, but please do proceed.

Dr. Jack Brown is the Paris Junior College Science Division chairman. His science articles is published every Friday.

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