Humans have crossed and hybridized different species long before the onset of modern genetic modification—only over much slower time scales. Splicing and other genetic techniques revolutionized scientific advancements, leading to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), for better or for worse. In this day and age, biotechnology is undeniably increasingly integrating into our daily lives. How we come to terms with this new reality and where we decide to go from here is largely a personal endeavor, but you are not alone.
The debate surrounding this issue continues worldwide. Those in favor within the private sector lean toward industrial solutions to the ever-growing world population, i.e., providing “cheaper” food for the masses, efficiently manufacturing pharmaceuticals, environmental clean up, etc. Biotechnology industries advocate less restrictive regulation, claiming: “regulatory review processes are not keeping up with rapidly advancing science and are making it a more difficult environment to develop new treatments and products.”1 This extreme view unfortunately attempts to circumvent policies put in place to protect us and the environment. Some suggest such a hands-off approach from government; others desire even further involvement for the sake of transparency and longevity.
Increased public consciousness regarding uncertainties in genetic modification has left many wary about long-term effects of consuming GMOs and possible ecological disturbances. As consumers we have the power to selectively avoid GMOs in the foods we eat. But this would only be possible with adequate labeling at a nation-wide scale. Aligned with this view, non-profits such as the Center for Food Safety2 and Just Label It!3 illustrate that currently 64 countries worldwide require GMO labeling, to varying degrees. Governments are clearly following suit with the demands of consumers, despite the strong-armed lobbying by the industrial complex. European Union countries have been granted the ability to ban genetically modified plants “even if the European Food Safety Authority has declared them safe for cultivation.”4
Even though controversial, GMOs have significantly contributed to society via microbial enzymes and isomers innovative to healthcare, agriculture, industrial, and environmental biotechnology products. So we face new prospects and challenges amidst an ever-changing arena and where are we to turn? Excitedly, projects such as the Synthetic Biology Project at the Wilson Center and the Program on Emerging Technologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology further bridge communication among sectors to interdisciplinarily study the potential ecological impacts of synthetic biology.5
Remember that the academic sector weighs in heavily here, determining the direction of research and preserving its integrity. It is our role in the scientific community to translate new insights into innovations, leading to convergence with the other sectors of society.6 Researchers in two particular laboratories are beautifully illustrating this in the case of artificially-constructed microbes to be used in industrial processes, genomically recoded organisms (GROs)7. By effectively recoding the genetic structure of E. coli bacteria8, limiting their growth restricted by genes dependent on synthetic amino acids9, industry would have a much stronger failsafe at its disposal. Even if these bacteria were to escape their highly protected confines, they would surely fail to find their necessary building blocks without a helping human hand.
Closed systems already offer lower risk of introducing specialized GMOs into the wild, whereas the potential for leaks and hitchhikers always looms. Could this collaborative innovation lead to more sophisticated microbe containment strategies to put a lid on potential environmental impacts? In any case, this scenario illuminates the opportunities available for precautionary measures within our reach.
No matter how synthetic technology is viewed, the advancements are here now and ever-evolving. We have the chance to embrace innovation and steer it toward a more solid foundation, while the political landscape is still ripe for shifts in indefinite directions.
1Unleashing the Promise of Biotechnology https://www.bio.org/articles/unleashing-promise-biotechnology
2About GE Food Labeling http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/976/ge-food-labeling/about-ge-labeling
3Labeling Around the World http://justlabelit.org/right-to-know/labeling-around-the-world/
4Rabesandratana T. E.U. to let wary members ban genetically modified crops. Science. Dec 2014;346(6215):1280.
5An Ecological Risk Research Agenda for Synthetic Biology http://www.synbioproject.org/news/project/an-ecological-risk-research-agenda-for-synthetic-biology/
6Sharp PA. Meeting global challenges: Discovery and innovation through convergence. Science. Dec 2014;346(6216):1468-1471.
7Lajoie MJ, Rovner AJ, Goodman DB, Hans-Rudolf A, Haimovich AD, Kuznetsov G, Mercer JA, Wang HH, Carr PA, Mosberg JA, Rohland N, Schultz PG, Jacobson JM, Rinehart J, Church GM. Genomically Recoded Organisms Expand Biological Functions. Science. Oct 2013;342(6156):357-360.
8Rovner AJ, Haimovich AD, Katz SR, Li Z, Grome MW, Gassaway BM, Amiram M, Patel JR, Gallagher RR, Rinehart J, Isaacs FJ. Recoded organisms engineered to depend on synthetic amino acids. Nature. Jan 2015; doi:10.1038/nature14095.
9Mandell DJ. Jajoie MJ, Mee MT, Takeuchi R, Kuznetsov G, Norville JE, Gregg CJ, Stoddard BL, Church GM. Biocontainment of genetically modified organisms by synthetic protein design. Nature. Jan 2015; doi:10.1038/nature14121.
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