Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are organisms whose genetic makeup has been artificially altered through a process known as recombinant DNA technology. According to the Human Genome Project, GMOs are created when scientists select specific genes within one organism and insert them into a different species. Scientists generally design GMOs to convey some sort of improvement or benefit to the organism. Genetic modification has been widely used for the last two decades in a variety of industries.
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Plant crops, including both food and fiber harvests, have been subject to several types of genetic modification. Genes used to increase yields include those conveying drought, pest and disease-resistance. Genetically modified seeds have been grown in the U.S. since 1996, with the trend towards using GMO seeds steadily increasing. According to the GMO Compass website, in 2009 more than 88 percent of U.S.-produced corn, soybean and cotton crops were genetically modified.
GMO animals are also frequently seen in agriculture. Genes for increased milk and egg production, disease-resistance and higher meat proportions are among those introduced into these populations.
The inception of genetic modification has transformed the field of medicine. According to the Institute for Traditional Medicine, one of the first applications of genetic modification was the creation a bacterial strain capable of producing human insulin. Insulin, the hormone lacking in people with diabetes, was previously isolated from pig pancreas. Recombinant insulin offers many advantages over pig insulin, including cost savings, fewer allergic reactions and putting an end to the practice of euthanizing pigs for their insulin. Other examples of GMOs used in medicine include pharmaceutical agents produced in sheep’s milk and vaccines grown in chicken eggs.
Bioremediation describes any process by which living organisms are used to clean up contaminated soil or water. Bioremediation generally uses microorganisms, small bacteria and yeasts, which ingest the contaminants in a given site and render them inert through the cells’ own metabolic processes. Although certainly advantageous, bioremediation has had limited use because the organisms must be able to survive, and indeed thrive, in a contaminated environment in order to do their work. According to the BioBasics website, factors affecting their survival could include temperature, pH, oxygen levels and nutrients. Genetic modification makes it possible to engineer bacteria that will be robust within a given environment, by inserting genes that will ensure their survival.