When corn was both genetically modified to be immune to Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup and to be foul-tasting to insects, most researchers thought that such genetic traits would be limited to their own genetically-modified corn. Boy, were they wrong!
Concerned consumers, organic farmers, and environmentalists were concerned that these genetic traits would transfer into non-GMO and organic corn and there would be no way to contain the beast. What if I told you that these modified genes are likely to have already transferred into humans and become a part of our genetic material?
Now I know that there is a lot of controversy surrounding the safety of GMOs, and even though there is no scientific consensus as to whether GMOs are good or bad (8,9), it’s definitely a practice we should keep a close eye on. I believe this is an important message for folks on both sides of the fence.
For millions of years, living organisms have shared their genes with one another as a way for cellular communities to survive. Until recently, it was believed that genes were only passed down through reproduction, which is called “vertical gene transfer” and only occurs within the same species. For example, if your parents had heart disease, then you may carry that gene and thus be at a greater risk for heart issues.
Now researchers know that genes transfer laterally, known as both “lateral gene transfer” and “horizontal gene transfer.” This means that genetic material can transfer from one adult cell to another and also across species lines. This process speeds up evolution – the ongoing process to adapt, learn and survive in a changing environment. The new news: organisms acquire learned information genetically from the experiences of other organisms that are not the same species. The concept that genetic material could cross species lines was not understood when genetic engineers released GMOs into the environment. Now it is understood that there is no way to contain the genetically-modified material. One study has shown that when humans digest genetically-modified foods, the artificially-created genes transfer into the bacteria of the gut and alter their function. (1)
What’s even crazier is that there is ample science suggesting that the genetic material from the gut microbiome transfers laterally and becomes a part of our genetic material. From there, these laterally-transferred microbial genes have the capacity to influence how our own microbes function. (2-7) Luckily, this type of genetic transfer does not mean it will necessarily be expressed. It seems to be the body’s way to accumulate information about the changing environment so it can, on the most subtle level, adapt and prepare for the changing world.
At this point in time, the Kraken has been released, and there is no way to reverse the leak of GMOs into the biosphere. Hopefully, GMOs are safe and the intelligence of our rapidly multiplying microbes will inform us humans that GMOs are artificial compounds and somehow ignore them or allow us to adapt to them.
In the meantime, perhaps we should pause on releasing new GMOs until we are sure they are safe.
What is your take on GMOs?