Today’s factismal: We’ve been using genetically-modified organisms to save lives for 38 years.
If you keep up with the news, you are aware that there is a lot of arguing going on over the use of genetically-modified organisms, also known as GMOs to the acronym-lovers out there. On the one hand, there are those who (rightly) point out that we don’t know everything about how DNA works and that inserting genes isn’t as exact a science as we would like. (Though it is getting much, much better.) On the other hand, there are those who (rightly) point out that we’ve been genetically modifying organisms for 12,000 years yet and have yet to create a Killer Tomato; instead, GMOs have simply saved thousands upon thousands of lives – and given us cuter pets.
Genetic modification techniques have advanced a lot since the days in Sumer when we’d breed wheat to be bigger, tastier, and better in beer, though it took a long time to get there. Back in 12,000 BCE, it would take decades of painstaking work to change an organism via selective breeding. It wasn’t until the DNA molecule was identified as the thing that made chromosomes work back in 1953 that genetic modification slipped into overdrive and designer genes became something more than a science fiction fantasy. Just twenty years after Franklin, Watson, and Crick identified the structure of DNA, scientists were creating new organisms that had DNA from two (or more) critters.
But they weren’t doing this for fun. They were doing it to save lives and to learn more about DNA so that they could save even more lives. For example, one of the first GMOs was a bacterium that had a gene to make antibiotics inserted into it; the idea was to test new ways of creating life-saving drugs. And the first commercially successful GMO was a type of e. coli (one of the bacteria that lives in your gut) that had been modified to make human insulin.
That was important because at the time diabetics had three choices. They could try to keep themselves alive by eating a diet of less than 1,000 calories a day. They could take insulin derived from sheep or cows and risk a life-threatening reaction with every shot (the first patient to have an insulin shot nearly died due to his reaction). Or they could just die. But the GMO e. coli changed all that when it was patented back on September 6, 1978. Because the GMO produced human insulin and not insulin from a cow or sheep, there was no risk of an allergic reaction. And because e. coli was inexpensive compared to sheep and cattle, the new source of insulin was much, much less expensive. Suddenly, everyone could afford the new medication and diabetes changed from a risky disease to a manageable condition.
If you’d like to learn more about genetic modification and maybe even try a little virtual modification on your won, why not flip over to Phylo? This citizen science project asks you to help sort out DNA so that we can better understand diseases like cancer and diabetes – and maybe even create a GMO that will help cure them!