WHAT ARE GMOS AND WHAT DO THEY MEAN TODAY?

A “transgenic” organism is, by definition, an organism that carries a heterologous genetic material, a piece of DNA that is not specific to its genome, which we call a “transgene.” For this reason, the organisms, bacteria, plants and animals that incorporate foreign DNA into their genome are called “transgenic”. Although it was in the 70s when the first “transgenic” organisms were created for the first time, when it was confirmed that it was possible to transfer genes between different bacteria through transformation and genetic engineering, in reality, the term “ transgenic ” does not appear in the scientific literature until 1982 , shortly after some of the first transgenic mice were published, in which, for example, a transgene with the growth hormone gene caused a significant increase in size in the mice that received it , which catapulted the launch of animal biotechnology. The first transgenic plant was described a year later, in 1983, and it was a tobacco plant resistant to an antibiotic , as proof that it was possible to transform plants with foreign genes, a work that launched plant biotechnology. Thus, the first thing to understand is that a transgenic organism is nothing more than one that has incorporated a foreign gene into its genome, which is not its own, and which can modify its characteristics.

AquAdvantage GMO Salmon (back) and Non-GMO Salmon (front). These two fish are siblings and are the same age, but AquAdvantage salmon grows much faster due to the genetic modification they carry, reaching commercial adult size in half the time. In everything else these two salmon are identical. Photography: AquaBounty Technologies, Inc.

In fact, the generation of transgenic organisms is a very useful tool that allows changing the qualities of a bacterium, a plant or an animal , to which beneficial characteristics can be added, for the species itself and / or for humanity ( bacteria capable of processing and degrading toxic substances discharged into the environment, bacteria capable of producing insulin , rice with new nutritional qualities , tomatoes that take longer to deteriorate , plants that resist drought better , or resistant to herbicides or pests , salmon that can grow much faster in fish farms ,pigs that generate less toxic slurry , mice as animal models of human diseases , etc…). And all this in a very precise way , selecting the genes that are added in each case, and no more, to confer the new desired qualities.

In the past, the classic procedures of animal or plant genetic improvement that ranchers and farmers applied to increase or improve the quality of their products were based on the observation of the characteristics of the animals or the fruits and the selection of stallions or seeds for the following generations. . For example, the bull or cow that presented certain beneficial characteristics for production (better meat or more milk) were those that were preferentially crossed with other animals to achieve that their offspring were as similar as possible to the exceptional original animals. This traditional genetic improvement gave rise to many of the varieties and breeds that we know of, producing benefits and other unwanted effects, since selection obviously did not affect only one gene but a set of genes, the entire genome, which was what was mobilized in each cross, in each generation, when selection occurred, including beneficial genes and those that did not. they were both. For this reason, modern biotechnology, both animal and plant, with the generation of transgenic organisms, allows the improvement procedure to be carried out much more precisely, faster, in a single generation, in a much more controlled way and affecting only the genes. whose activity it is desired to modify, without altering the rest of the genome. And, in addition, the process is not limited to the genes that an organism has, but genes from another species can be introduced to give it new, more beneficial characteristics,

The appearance of the first transgenic plant, in 1983, triggered the debate among scientists and in society, which demanded a specific regulation on transgenic organisms. It was from 1983 on when the concept of genetically modified organism ( OMG , or GMO , of genetically modified organism , in English, often abbreviated simply as GM ) began to be used. In addition to arousing less rejection among society (the word “transgenic” had and still has negative connotations today) the concept of GMOs made it possible to accommodate not only the introduction of new genes, but also the alteration or elimination of pre-existing genes in the genome. of the organism to modify.In 1981, pluripotent embryonic stem cells were described for the first time in the mouse (popularly known as embryonic stem cells) which allowed, six years later, in 1987, to obtain the first specific mutations in mouse genes , eliminating or altering the function of certain genes to study their involvement in human diseases, a fundamental advance in animal biotechnology that was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology to pioneering researchers Martin Evans, Mario Capecchi and Oliver Smithies , in 2007.

Since genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are obtained, in the laboratory, in research centers, using genetic engineering techniques, it is frequent that they are also called GE ( genetically engineered ), and we find references to GE animals or GE plants . Finally, given that any genetic modification carried out on an organism actually represents an alteration of its genome , of its genetic material, we can also find references to GMOs such as GA ( genetically altered ), GA animals or GA plants .

Before it can be marketed, any new biotechnological product intended for consumption (both for food and as medicine) must pass the controls established by government agencies in charge of guaranteeing safety for people and the environment, in accordance with current legislation. In the United States (USA) the agency in charge of both food and drugs is the FDA ( US Food and Drug Administration ), while in the European Union there are two agencies: the agency in charge of regulating products intended for consumption is the EFSA ( European Food Safety Authority ), and the one in charge of regulating medicines is the EMA (European Medicament Agency ). In this scheme, you can consult the review process that any GMO follows before it can be authorized in the European Union , a decision that ultimately always depends on each of the member states. The updated list of authorized GMOs in the European Union can be consulted on this website . Currently, only one transgenic corn , MON-810 , produced by the Monsanto company, resistant to insect pests, is mainly grown in Spain is approved for cultivation in the European Union . And here you can consult the updated list of GMOs authorized for their voluntary release or confined use in Spain , for autonomous communities .

The first GMO authorized was, precisely, in 1982, a transgenic Escherichia coli bacterium , capable of producing human insulin . The first transgenic plants that were authorized for human consumption, in 1994, in the USA, were the “ Flavr Savr ” tomatoes , produced by the North American company Calgene, Inc., whose genetic modification made it possible to delay their deterioration during transport and subsequent commercialization. And, after these first tomatoes, many more transgenic plants resistant to herbicides or insect pests or with special characteristics were authorized , mainly in the US and in many other countries.

However, the same has not happened with transgenic animals, in terms of applications for human consumption. The thousands of genetically modified animals, mainly mice, developed for biomedical purposes, as animal models of human disease , do not correlate at all with the use of transgenic animals as biotechnological products for consumption or as producers of specific drugs. To this day, unfortunately, the pressures and commercial interests of certain social groups have prevented one of the first transgenic animals destined for consumption, the transgenic AquAdvantage salmon, developed in 1989, capable of growing faster than non-transgenic farmed salmon and reaching commercial size in half the time (just a year and a half, compared to the three years it takes for a non-transgenic salmon to be commercialized). to the shops. This transgenic salmon is probably the most analyzed, tested, revised and verified animal and biotechnological product in the entire history of humanity, during the 26 years that it has been investigated. All the analyzes carried out demonstrate its safety and attest that it does not pose problems to the environment , being indistinguishable in terms of food and organoleptic characteristics, for all purposes, from any other non-transgenic salmon. However, the FDA has yet to issue its final approval , pending publication since early 2013, and which is expected to open the door to many other genetically modified animals whose approval for consumption or release has been requested. Among them are the transgenic mosquitoes developed by the British company Oxitec designed to effectively combat infectious diseases transmitted by these insects, such as yellow fever, dengue or the chikungunya virus. The first open field trials with these mosquitoes have already been approved in Brazil and are being studied in other parts of the world to eradicate these diseases.

On the contrary, the marketing of transgenic zebrafish with fluorescent protein genes, called GloFish , intended for sale to aquariums, has been allowed in the US since 2003 .

Similarly, only two drugs, approved by the EMA and the FDA, originate from transgenic animals: ATryn , derived from the milk of transgenic goats; and, Ruconest , derived from the milk of transgenic rabbits. Both products are used in medicine to treat patients with congenital antithrombin deficiency (ATryn) or patients with hereditary angioedema (Ruconest). The list of approved products whose origin is a transgenic animal is expected to increase significantly in the coming years.

The emergence of new genetic modification techniques, which allow genome editing in a much simpler, more precise and efficient way, such as CRISPR tools , is posing new challenges to GMO legislation . Through the use of CRISPR tools, the genome of an organism can be modified without leaving any traces, without introducing any foreign DNA, simply incorporating a specific mutation, a small alteration, in the same way as that same mutation could have appeared spontaneously . In these cases, the introduction of a transgene does not occur and, therefore, it is not possible to speak, being formally strict, of a transgenic organism. That is why the name of genetically edited animals or plants , or with their edited genome (in English, genome edited , or genetically edited ) is becoming popular .

In any case, whether we are talking about a transgenic organism, as if we are talking about a genetically modified organism, or a genetically altered organism or an organism with its edited genome, we will be talking about bacteria, animals and plants obtained thanks to research scientific, thanks to biotechnological progress, with new characteristics, better adapted and more respectful with the environment, more productive, more efficient, and, ultimately, more beneficial and useful for humanity.

It seems anachronistic to discuss these issues today, taking up the discussions and intense debates that took place in the mid-90s, more than 20 years ago, when the first consumer products derived from transgenic organisms began to be marketed. . A possible interpretation of why this issue reappears may have to do with ignorance, with the lack of access to information , truthful, rigorous, endorsed by a multitude of scientific data, experiments and analyzes carried out during all these years and which demonstrate clearly the benefits of transgenic organisms and disassemble, one by one, all the campaigns against them launched from certain groups in society.That is why communication in science, the dissemination and dissemination of information is so important .

Indeed, smoking tobacco is bad for health, human industrial activity is changing the world climate, we are traveling to the Moon and transgenic organisms are products of biotechnology that have brought great benefits to humanity. Of course, there are those who still believe that tobacco is not as bad as they say, that it is impossible for human activity to alter the climate, that man never traveled to the Moon, and that “GMOs” are toxic and a source of problems for humanity, but those beliefs do not change the facts, the data, the stubborn reality, as, for example, José Miguel Mulet, professor of biotechnology at the University of Valencia, has been commissioned to summarize wonderfully in several entries on his blog .

Therefore, in 2015, the reading of proposals with which it is intended to declare a city, a region or a country as a GMO-free zone produces sadness and amazement . Scientifically they have no sense or justification.

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