Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been something of a hot button issue for a number of years.
Their opponents argue that they are ‘unnatural’, that by editing the fundamental building blocks of life we are playing God and overstepping imagined boundaries.
Proponents of GMOs argue that we have been genetically engineering our plants via selective breeding since we first mastered agriculture; being able to modify them at the genetic level the way we can today is simply a much more efficient form of what we were doing anyway.
Initially scientists were somewhat unsure about what the limits of our capabilities would be. When the idea existed purely as a theory, there was debate amongst biologists as to just how precise we could be with our alterations and what characteristics we could control. We now have a much better grasp of the limits of our capabilities and what is achievable.
Genetically modified crops are more than just a scientific curiosity, many experts believe that in the not very distant future we will be dependent upon such techniques in order to meet global food demands. Genetically modifying crops allows us to accomplish two key goals, first we are able to alter crops so that they produce a much greater yield, second, we are able to make them more weather resistant and able to tolerate a broader range of climates.
Addressing the issue of yield and resilience allows us to produce much more food and are the most essential techniques to master if we hope to feed a significant portion of the population using GMOs. Once we have addressed these considerations we can then begin to look at ways that we can alter the taste and texture of our crops to improve their taste and versatility.
We may also be able to alter the taste itself of food, but this is a more complex process and one that is harder to direct towards specific goals.
Scientists from the University of Berkley in California have identified a process involving genetically modified yeast which allows us to produce morphine cheap and easily. By using the same process we would use to ferment yeast with sugar in order to produce alcohol, but replacing the yeast with the genetically modified version, we are able to produce morphine instead of ethanol (alcohol).
The question of how to make morphine is an important one for global healthcare. Morphine is on the WHO list of essential medicines required for a functioning healthcare system and is the prototype for all other opioid based painkillers.
For many agricultural sites around the world, a growing problem is that of soil salinity. This is a difficult problem to solve but GMOs offer a potential option. Scientists have been able to take a gene from a plant that is very resistant to salt and implant it in to another species in order to confer the same advantage.
Genetically modified organisms have been controversial, but it is increasingly looking like these are the best chance we have at combating some of our biggest environmental and healthcare challenges.