GMOs and Bioengineered Food – Historical Milestones

From peas to trees.

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

GMOs and Bioengineered Food – What is It?

Knowledge is power.

I think the brouhaha surrounding GMOs is making it hard for people to learn about bioengineered food so this post series will attempt to filter out the noise.

Reading about the upcoming U.S. genetically engineered (now called bioengineered) food labeling standard put genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on my radar screen again. I had long wanted to research and write about GMOs and genetically modified food but it is a daunting task. Not only is it a complex subject, it is highly controversial with proponents and opponents who are equally passionate about their positions. So, I have been procrastinating—until now.

I am not immune to ranting and raving about an issue I feel strongly about, but I do not think it is at all helpful. It is hard to listen when someone is in your face shouting in person, on a screen, or in writing.

Rather than be deterred by the divisiveness encompassing GMOs and bioengineered food, I decided to attempt to wade through it to find some useful information for you and me, and to practice using my indoor voice.

This is the first post in a series of posts about GMOs and bioengineered food intended to deliver information in easy to read and understand bite-size chunks (pun intended). I will include resources and links for readers who want more information.

This post will introduce you to key genetic engineering terms, traditional breeding and genetic engineering differences, and how genetic engineering works. Future posts will cover historical milestones, U.S. laws and regulations (including the labeling standard), and environmental concerns and issues.

After you read this post series, I hope you will feel more informed about GMOs and bioengineered food and will take action yourself to encourage civil discourse about this topic. Have a discussion with your family at the dinner table, share this post with a friend, talk with a coworker during lunch, write a letter to the editor of your local paper, or share your thoughts and concerns with your elected officials.

Why Should You Care about GMOs and Bioengineered Food?

Okay, so you read the first section of this post but maybe you are wondering why you should allocate time from your busy life to learn about GMOs and bioengineered food.

Well, in 2017, genetically modified (biotech) crops covered 189.9 million hectares (469 million acres or 11 times the size of California) of land in 24 countries.1, 2 The United States was the largest producer in the world, planting 39.4% of the global biotech crop hectarage.3 That is a lot of land and plant matter, which could have a significant positive or negative impact on people and the environment.

Where Biotech Crops Are Grown Around the World

In the United States, genetically modified plants have been widely adopted by growers of 5 major crops (sugar beet—100%, soybean—94%, cotton—93%, corn—92%, and canola—90%).4 These crops provide food, ingredients for processed foods, animal feed, fiber, and bio-fuel. Chances are you, your family, and your pet eats bioengineered food at least some of the time.

For me, a good reason to learn about GMOs and bioengineered food is that biotech crops continue to expand across the world and I want to learn what impact that is having or might have on people and the environment.

A good reason for you or anyone else to learn about GMOs and bioengineered food is that being informed about a topic gives you a sound basis for choosing to take action or not. Although it is well known, that people often make decisions based on their feelings and opinions, I do not see any downside to having some information in the mix.

Global Area of Biotech Crops 1996 to 2017 Chart

Key Genetic Engineering Terms and Definitions

Below is an introduction to some of the terms you will come across while learning about genetic engineering. These definitions are from the USDA’s Agriculture Biotechnology Glossary.

  • Chromosome: The self-replicating genetic structure of cells, containing genes, which determines the inheritance of traits. Chemically, each chromosome is composed of proteins and a long molecule of DNA.
  • Cross-pollination: Fertilization of a plant with pollen from another plant. Pollen may be transferred by wind, insects, other organisms, or humans.
  • DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid): The chemical substance from which genes are made. DNA is a long, double-stranded helical molecule made up of nucleotides, which are themselves composed of sugars, phosphates, and derivatives of the four bases adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T). The sequence order of the four bases in the DNA strands determines the genetic information contained.
  • Gene: The fundamental physical and functional unit of heredity. A gene is typically a specific segment of a chromosome and encodes a specific functional product (such as a protein or RNA molecule).
  • Genetic engineering (GE): Manipulation of an organism’s genes by introducing, eliminating or rearranging specific genes using the methods of modern molecular biology, particularly those techniques referred to as recombinant DNA techniques.
  • Genetic modification (GM): The production of heritable improvements in plants or animals for specific uses, via either genetic engineering or other more traditional methods. Some countries other than the United States use this term to refer specifically to genetic engineering.
  • Genetically modified organism (GMO): An organism produced through genetic modification.
  • Recombinant DNA technology: Procedures used to join DNA segments in a cell-free system (e.g. in a test tube outside living cells or organisms). Under appropriate conditions, a recombinant DNA molecule can be introduced into a cell and copy itself (replicate), either as an independent entity (autonomously) or as an integral part of a cellular chromosome.
  • Selective breeding: Making deliberate crosses or matings of organisms so the offspring will have particular desired characteristics derived from one or both of the parents.
  • Transgenic organism: An organism resulting from the insertion of genetic material from another organism using recombinant DNA techniques.

Approved Transgenic Plant Events, 1992-2016

Traditional Breeding and Genetic Engineering Differences

Humans have been tinkering with plant and animal genetics for thousands of years.

Many of the plants and animals you are familiar with today are the result of selective breeding. For instance, man’s best friend, the dog, is the result of selectively breeding wolves until they were tame enough to live with safely. Corn is another example. The large ears of yellow corn you find in the grocery market today were created by selectively breeding small grass-like plants to be bigger and bigger.

Traditionally, selective breeding could only be accomplished by mating plants or animals with other similar plants or animals. For example, a sweet orange and a pomelo were crossbred to create the grapefruit and a mule is the offspring of a donkey and a horse.

Genetic engineering has crossed the mating barrier. Now scientists can select specific DNA molecules from one organism (plant, animal, fungi, protists, bacteria, and archaea) and directly insert them into the DNA of another organism or even create a new organism. You may have heard of Bt corn, which was genetically engineered from corn and a soil bacterium so the Bt corn can make its own pesticide to kill the pests that like to eat it.

Genetic Traits Expressed in GMO Crops Grown in the United States
GMOAnswers.com

A Glimpse into GMOs and Genetic Engineering

On your behalf and mine, I have read umpteen articles and several books and watched two full-length films and countless videos. My goal was to find articles, books, web pages, films, or videos that explain GMOs and genetic engineering in “regular” people language without being too pro or anti-GMO.

Below are four of my favorites that will give you a glimpse into GMOs and genetic engineering in anywhere from a minute to a half an hour (this does not include time to buy the book or check it out of the library).

  1. Creation of an Insect Resistant Tomato Plant – this infographic is simple and clear making it easy to grasp the concept quickly (scroll down after you open the web page).
  2. What is genetic engineering and how does it work? – I like this web page because it explains genetic engineering in terms of recipes and cookbooks accompanied by simple illustrations.
  3. Are GMOs Good or Bad? Genetic Engineering & Our Food – this 9-minute animated video conveys information with colorful illustrations and basic language. The video skims over issues and seems pro-GMO to me.
  4. Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet, by McKay Jenkins. Chapter 3 of this book provides a user-friendly guide to genetic engineering. Jenkins combines scientific terms with familiar language to create descriptions of complex concepts that are easy to understand. The whole book is worth reading.

After reading this post, I hope you feel like you have at least become acquainted with GMOs and genetic engineering and are interested in learning more about this subject.

In the next post in this series, we will endeavor to learn about some of the major milestones that led us to where we are today with GMOs and genetic engineering.

Featured Image at Top: Circular Maze with a Tiny Ladder in Center – Photo Credit iStock/filo

Related Posts

References

  1. Brief 53: Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2017 – International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), 06/26/18
  2. The measure of Things – California
  3. Do you know where biotech crops are grown? (infographic) – ISAAA, 2015
  4. National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard Proposed Rule – U.S. Federal Register/Vol. 83, No. 87/Friday, May 4, 2018

Resources