GMOs and Bioengineered Food – Historical Milestones

From peas to trees.

Fountain Pen Drawing a Line on a Paper

Scientists wielding high tech tools like garden trowels, watering cans, and fountain pens launched the genetic engineering age, long before the advent of GMOs and bioengineered food.

I wonder what early genetic engineers would think about today’s biotech industry. Would they feel proud or dismayed about how their own contributions to science have led us, in part, to where we are today?

This is the second post in a series of posts aimed at helping you learn about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and bioengineered food without shocking headlines or industry spin. In the first post, GMOs and Bioengineered Food – What is It? you were introduced to genetic engineering terms and got a glimpse into how it works. This post will cover a bit of background and history. Other posts will address U.S. laws and regulations (including the pending labeling standard) and environmental issues.

For this post, I selected some of the historical milestones that I found particularly interesting (with some emphasis on food) beginning with the man recognized as the “father of modern genetics,” Gregor Mendel. If you are a history buff or just want more history, check out the links in the references and resource sections.

1866 – Dawn of Modern Genetics

Gregor MendelAustrian monk, Gregor Mendel, presented his paper Experiments on Plant Hybridization.

He had discovered that plant and animal offspring inherit traits from their parents via what we now call genes. Mendel accomplished this by growing 28,000 pea plants between 1856 and 1863, observing seven traits for each generation of plants, and painstakingly recording data (by hand). Unfortunately, as often happens with new scientific breakthroughs, the scientific community, mostly ignored his work until decades later, after he had died.1, 2

1868 – What is this Slimy Stuff?

Friedrich Meischer, a trained physician, and researcher was the first person to isolate the substance we now call DNA.

He conducted his experiments using white blood cells from bandages supplied by a nearby hospital. The molecule he identified came from the nucleus of the cell so he called it nuclein. Meischer published his findings in a paper with the catchy title, On the chemical composition of the pus cells. It would take decades before other scientists realized that the substance Meischer discovered is what carries genetic information and for it to be named deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).3

1952 – It is Confirmed, DNA is Responsible for Inheritance

Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase conducted experiments confirming that DNA is the genetic material responsible for inheritance.

Martha Chase and Alfred Hershey
Martha Chase and Alfred Hershey – Photo Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives

Previously, some scientists had suggested that DNA carried genetic material but many believed that protein in cells was responsible for inheritance.4

1963 – International Food Safety Standards Get Their Start

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) began working on the Codex Alimentarius (Latin, meaning food law or code).

Their purpose was to establish voluntary international food standards to address the growing international food trade and to help ensure food safety, quality, and fair trade practices. Now, guidelines related to biotechnology are included in the Codex.5

1970 – One Weed Killer to Rule Them All

A chemist working at Monsanto named John E. Franz discovered that a glyphosate molecule could be used to create a herbicide that would kill virtually any plant it came in contact with.

A few years later, Roundup hit the market.6

1973 – Pick and Choose DNA

Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen demonstrated that they were able to cut and splice strands of DNA from one organism to another organism.

Recombinant DNA is the general name for DNA created by combining at least two strands of DNA. Sometimes, it is called chimera DNA because DNA from different species can be combined like a bacteria and a plant.7

1975 – Hold On, Safety First

140 people, mostly biologists, attended a conference on recombinant DNA at Asilomar State Beach in Monterey County, CA.

Maxine Singer, Norton Zinder, Sydney Brenner, and Paul Berg at Asilomar Conference on rDNA in 1975
Maxine Singer, Norton Zinder, Sydney Brenner, and Paul Berg at Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA in 1975 – Photo National Academy of Sciences

These experts came together to talk about the potential dangers of biotechnology and to establish guidelines for conducting experiments safely and keeping them contained.8

1980 – You Can Patent Life

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, a scientist working for General Electric, could patent a bacterium he had genetically modified to break down crude oil to help mitigate oil spills.

For the purposes of patent law, the fact that this bacterium was a living organism did not make any difference.9

1982 – It All Began with a Drug

Eli Lilly submitted a request for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve their new genetically engineered insulin drug called Humulin in May 1982.

Five months later, in October 1982, the FDA made history by becoming the first U.S. regulatory agency to approve a genetically engineered product for human use.10, 11

1990 – Say Cheese

A genetically modified enzyme for making cheese was the first product ever approved by the FDA for human consumption.

The review process took 28 months.12

1992 – Extended Shelf Life Tomato

Calgene’s FLAVR SAVR tomato crossed its first regulatory hurdle when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) deregulated it meaning Calgene could grow as many FLAVR SAVR tomatoes as the wanted in outdoor fields unrestricted and unregulated.

The FLAVR SAVR tomato had been genetically engineered to improve its shelf life after being picked. It was the first genetically engineered food crop to receive USDA approval.13

1995 – Plants Make Their Own Insecticide

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) got involved in regulating genetically engineered plants when some plants were genetically modified with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring soil bacterium that is toxic to certain insects.

In 1995, the EPA registered the first “Bt plant-incorporated protectants” for use in the United States. This included Bt corn, Bt cotton, and Bt potatoes.14, 15

1996 – Roundup Ready Crops

Roundup Ready Soybeans Logo
Monsanto

A year after the EPA approved the first insecticide-producing crops; the first herbicide-resistant seeds became commercially available.

In 1996, a million acres of Roundup Ready soybeans were grown in the United States. This meant that farmers could spray their crops with Roundup herbicide to kill weeds in their fields without harming their crops.16

1999 – Rice for the Greater Good

Biologists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer unveiled Gold Rice, which they co-invented to produce beta-carotene in hopes of preventing vitamin A deficiency in millions of children in disadvantaged countries.

This scientific breakthrough was the start of a complex and lengthy patent, regulatory, and acceptance journey that continues to this day.17, 18, 19

2003 – International Biosafety Cooperation

On September 11, 2003, after more than a decade of work, The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety went into force becoming the first international treaty governing the movements from one country to another of living modified organisms (LMOs) that are created through biotechnology.

To date, 172 countries, not including the United States, have ratified the protocol.20

2007 – The Butterfly Seal

Non-GMO Project LogoTwo grocery stores got together to develop their own non-GMO policy and founded the nonprofit Non-GMO Project.

The organization grew and collaborating with FoodChain ID and other stakeholders created a Non-GMO Project Standard and Product Verification Program. Over 43,000 products now display the Non-GMO Project butterfly logo.21

2009 – Pharm Animals

The FDA approved ATryn the first drug produced by a genetically engineered animal, a goat in this case.

ATryn is made from the milk of goats that have been genetically modified to produce a plasma protein for treating blood-clotting disorders. 22

2013 – CRISPR Critters

MIT scientist Feng Zhang published the first method to engineer CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) to edit the genome in mouse and human cells.

Feng Zhang and Patrick Hsu in MIT Lab
Feng Zhang and Patrick Hsu in MIT Lab – Photo Justin Knight

CRISPR is an alternative to other existing genome editing technologies.23, 24

2015 – Did You Know a Fish Gene is a Drug?

On November 24, 2015, the FDA gave the go-ahead to AquaBounty Technologies, Inc. “for an opAFP-GHc2 rDNA construct at the α-locus in the EO-1α lineage triploid, hemizygous, all-female Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) known as AquAdvantage Salmon,” which grows about twice as fast as a wild salmon.

The FDA regulates genetically engineered animals as veterinary drugs claiming that genes inserted into animals meet the definition of a drug.25, 26

2016 – Put a Label on It

On July 29, 2016, the United States Congress passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (Public Law 114-216) amending the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 (7 U.S.C. 1621).

The USDA is finalizing the labeling standard for implementation on January 1, 2020.27

2018 – Bringing Back the American Chestnut Tree

Researchers at State University of New York (SUNY) have been developing a genetically engineered American chestnut tree to combat a fungus blight that has killed billions of American chestnut trees on the east coast of the United States.

Charles Maynard and William Powell with Transgenic American Chestnut Tree Seedling
Charles Maynard and William Powell with a Genetically Engineered American Chestnut Tree Seedling – Photo State University of New York

Their intent is to outcross the genetically engineered trees with wild trees to create a wild version resistant to the blight. SUNY recently published the results of two greenhouse studies that evaluated belowground interactions between the genetically engineered tree and organisms found in their native ecosystems.28, 29, 30

I hope you found at least a few of the above genetic engineering historical milestones interesting and informative. The next post in this series will cover some of United States laws and regulations including the pending bioengineered food-labeling standard.

Featured Image at Top: Fountain Pen Drawing a Line on Paper – Photo Credit iStock/jmimages

Related Posts

References

  1. Gregor Mendel – Wikipedia
  2. Experiments in Plant Hybridization (1865) – by Gregor Mendel, 1866
  3. Friedrich Miescher – Discoverer of DNA – Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research
  4. Hershey–Chase Experiment – Wikipedia
  5. Codex Alimentarius: International Food Standards – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization
  6. The History of Roundup – Monsanto
  7. Genetic and Genomics Timelines: 1973 – Genome News Network
  8. Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA – Wikipedia
  9. Can We Patent Life? – by Michael Specter, The New Yorker, 04/01/13
  10. A New Insulin Give Approval for Use in U.S. – by Lawrence K. Altman, The New York Times, 10/30/18
  11. Celebrating a Milestone: FDA’s Approval of First Genetically-Engineered Product – by Suzanne White Junod, Ph.D., FDA Historian, September-October 2007
  12. FDA Approves Bioengineered Cheese Enzyme – by Malcolm Gladwell, The Washington Post, 03/24/90
  13. Now, We Bring You…the Engineered Tomato – by Donna K. Walters, Los Angeles Times, 10/17/92
  14. EPA’s Regulation of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) Crops – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, May 2002
  15. E.P.A. Approves Three Genetically Altered Crops – by The Associated Press, The New York Times, 04/11/95
  16. Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet, by McKay Jenkins, published by Avery, 2017 (p. 58)
  17. Golden Rice Project
  18. Scientist At Work: Ingo Potrykus; Golden Rice in a Grenade-Proof Greenhouse – By Jon Christensen, The New York Times, 11/21/00
  19. Golden Rice meets food safety standards in three global leading regulatory agencies – Press Release, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), 05/25/18
  20. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety – Convention on Biological Diversity, United Nations Environment Programme
  21. Non-GMO Project – History
  22. F.D.A. Approves Drug From Gene-Altered Goats – by Andrew Pollack, The New York Times, 02/06/09
  23. Questions and Answers about CRISPR – Broad Institute (includes a 2-minute video)
  24. CRISPR Timeline – Broad Institute
  25. New Animal Drugs in Genetically Engineered Animals; opAFP-GHc2 Recombinant Deoxyribonucleic Acid Construct – U.S. Federal Register, 11/24/15
  26. Genetically Engineered Salmon Approved for Consumption – by Andrew Pollack, The New York Times, 11/19/15
  27. National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (Public Law 114-216) – United States Congress, 07/29/16
  28. ESF’s American Chestnut Trees Make Return in NY – State University of New York, 05/06/15
  29. SUNY ESF researchers growing 10,000 blight-resistant American chestnut trees – by Katelyn Faubel, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, 04/09/18
  30. Transgenic American Chestnuts Do Not Inhibit Germination of Native Seeds or Colonization of Mycorrhizal Fungi – by Andrew E. Newhouse, Allison D. Oakes, Hannah C. Pilkey, Hannah E. Roden, Thomas R. Horton, and William A. Powell WA, Frontiers in Plant Science, 07/19/18

Resources

Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information, spark conversation, and convince people to take action to keep earth habitable for all. She believes our individual actions do matter—it all adds up.

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