LEGO for Biologists

Written by Matthew Gorospe

Illustrated by Lynelle Daryl Ringor

A recent study published by the Science journal has excited the scientific community, and with good reason—a group of researchers has managed to engineer plant-animal hybrids, to a certain extent.1 Specifically, they have created immune system proteins called pinkobodies, derived from animals, and integrate them with the plant’s immune system for the purpose of fending off and killing pathogen-infected cells.2

Plants have a relatively simple immune system compared to higher animals such as vertebrates. We, for example, have an immune system consisting of many specialized parts from the rapid immune response of neutrophils, a type of leukocyte, to the adaptive immune response of antibody-generating B cells, another type of leukocyte. On the other hand, the immune system of plants is not adaptive and not mobile, with the immune response largely left to individual plant cells.3

With this, the development of pinkobodies becomes much more commendable—a plant with an adaptive immune system. The advent of this technology could be used to directly tune crops to be resistant to not only specific pests but also certain pathogens.4

While the development of an adaptive immune response in plants is certainly a novel discovery, the ability to modify the genetics of flora and fauna has been around for quite some time—and with this, the genetically modified organism–the GMO.

Nova vita

“Genetically modified organisms [are] transgenic organisms. When we say transgenic […] we get a gene and transfer it to another organism.” said Ateneo Biology Instructor Irvin Rondolo.

As the name suggests, a GMO is a plant, animal, or microorganism that has been genetically modified.5 In recent years, this is done through genetic engineering by directly editing genes with methods such as recombinant DNA technology.6 However, one can argue that GMOs have existed as far back as 11 thousand years ago in the Neolithic period.

Futurist Alvin Toffler describes this as the First Wave of Technology—the Agricultural Revolution.7 During which, human societies have just begun establishing permanent settlements and abandoning the nomadic lifestyle with the advent of agricultural practices such as farming and domestication of wildlife.

However, over the course of time these humans were somehow able to select distinct traits in crops and domesticated animals that are more favorable to them, even without the knowledge of genes and inheritance. This process of artificial selection eventually gave rise to many recognizable biologies in society such as the production of sweet corn in crops and the emergence of various dog breeds in animals—breakthroughs that have allowed the onset of significant progress in the field of genetics.8

The Third Wave of Technology for Toffler came in the form of digital technology, computers, and mass media.9 Such advancements in technology were not lost with biologists, as genetic engineering and biotechnology have been advancing since the molecular structure of DNA was revealed by Watson and Crick.10 

By 1973, the first genetic engineering experiment would be performed by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen by transferring bacterial DNA from one to another.11 These pursuits of genetic modification eventually led to the development of GMOs, and other biotechnology such as gene therapy.

Exempli Gratia

DNA biotechnology has achieved many things that were previously thought to be unimaginable. For instance, scientists were able to engineer DNA containing genes to produce human insulin, to be combined with bacterial DNA, before it is introduced to a bacterium, ultimately giving rise to a population of insulin-producing bacteria.12 The resulting insulin output is used to treat patients that have problems in insulin regulation, such as both types of diabetes.

The process of DNA recombination is further expounded in this example from Ateneo Biology Professor Dr. Vivian Panes: “So first of all I need to extract DNA from the healthy individual […] Once I have extracted DNA from his tissues, I can actually isolate the insulin gene […] After I have isolated the insulin gene using restriction enzymes, then I can introduce the gene to a vector, for instance to a plasmid and once the gene has been introduced, the plasmid can be introduced to a host cell…And then eventually you can let them proliferate or divide further and then you can actually extract the insulin from there.” 

Prior to this innovation, insulin had to be extracted and purified from slaughtered cattle or pigs.13 However, as the hormone comes from a non-human source, it tends to cause an allergic reaction in patients such as lipoatrophy, an immune response resulting in fat-loss, and lipohypertrophy, which can hinder the absorption of the injected insulin.14 This narrative is readily indicative of the integral role biotechnology plays in furthering the onward progression of the field of medicine.

Aside from the health sector, GMOs have been prominent in agriculture as well. For starters, the development of the genetically modified Coho salmon has incited the onset of salmon species which have the capacity to mature at a faster rate and grow larger compared to normal. 15 As of 2022, these genetically modified salmon have been sold in Canada, the U.S., and Brazil.16

Fig. 1. A genetically modified salmon (background) with a conventional salmon at the same age (foreground).

Perhaps, in an agricultural country like the Philippines, more well-known are the numerous examples of genetically modified crops. The Bt talong, for instance, is a genetically modified eggplant that produces Cry proteins naturally expressed by the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (hence Bt). This allows it to be resistant toward pests, the eggplant fruit and shoot borer, which is responsible for an annual loss of up to 73% in eggplant production.17 

Fig. 2 An infested non-Bt talong (left) compared with a genetically modified Bt talong (right).

Another genetically modified crop, which this time is the subject of heated controversy, is the golden rice developed by the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Unlike the conventional rice, this GMO contains more β-Carotene extracted from other organisms, which is converted by the body to vitamin A upon consumption. The genetic modification this time around aims to provide additional nutrients, instead of combating pests, as it is originally formulated to address vitamin A deficiency among marginalized communities.19

Fig. 3. Conventional white rice (left) and golden rice (right). Its yellow color is a result of the expression of β-Carotene.

Bona fide or Mala fide?

In recent years, reception for GMOs entering the market has observably engendered  mixed reactions. However, it seems as if sentiment against its use and production is becoming more noticed. The legalization of golden rice in the Philippines for commercial use in 2021, in particular, has reignited the discourse on whether GMOs should be promoted or banned. For many organizations such as the Stop Golden Rice! Network (SGRN), SIKWAL-GMO, and Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), the answer is clear.20

In fact, the latter two organizations, in their protest against golden rice, ravaged a field growing the GMO back in 2013 when it was still in development; as the article writer Kai Kupferschmidt puts it: “…the vandals are unfairly attacking the public sector project as if it is a multinational company producing genetically modified plants for profit.”21

In this discourse on GMOs, plenty of claims have been made for and against their use. Like with other scientific advancements (e.g. vaccines), some of them carry no validity for many, especially among scientists. A popular one in this field is the claim that GMOs are poisonous and can be detrimental to one’s health.

“…So yung mga claims kasi ng iba, nag-ke-claim sila na masama yung mga GMOs pero wala naman silang proof. They lack evidence. So bago magsabi na masama yung effect ng GMO dapat some clinical or field trials should be first conducted to determine if there is a detrimental effect on the health of the organism,” said Panes.

For Rondolo, much of the unfounded claims against GMOs underlies a deeper problem of misinformation, or lack of information available on the matter. 

Yung concern na nakikita ko kasi talaga from them [is that] they are not aware of the benefits of this technology…yung advancement ng science. Kasi, in all aspects naman, if you are not aware [or] if you are not informed, hindi mo siya talaga tatanggapin. I-re-reject mo lang siya ng i-re-reject,” he said.

Despite this, legitimate concerns over introducing GMOs exist. The most obvious and glaring concern would be the unintended consequences they will have on altering the balance of the natural environment—for humans in particular, consumption might develop new allergic reactions and even increase the possibility of making opportunistic bacteria in the gut resistant to antibiotics.22

Concerns for local farmers competing against GMO farmers were also raised. “…If we look at the negative side…yung mga farmers na hindi gumagamit ng GMO at yung gumagamit ng GMO—pag masyado silang magkalapit, yung mga peste hindi pumupunta sa GMO, pumupunta sila sa non-GMO na maliit lang. So ang tendency noon nasisira ang palayan niya, siya ang walang kakainin, siya ang walang dadalihing pera sa pagkakainan nila. Yan lang yung parang isang factor,” said Rondolo.

Ius Naturale

Despite being a relatively new phenomenon, GMOs have already embedded themselves in the public consciousness. On one hand, we humans have always had the ability to manipulate our surroundings since the beginning—for better or for worse, as part of a global ecosystem. In this light, the advent of GMOs seems like a natural progression forward. On the other hand, though, we are directly tinkering with the mechanisms of life itself—while we may be able to theorize, the actual application remains to be an entirely different thing.

To what extent this falls under natural law depends on how reasonable the public is willing to view GMOs. On a personal note, I will remain open to the prospects it will bring, as seen in the success of public GMO projects such as golden rice and Bt talong, but will remain cautious as seen in the accidental mishaps of Bt corn.23 For scientists such as Rondolo, however, the journey of GMOs still has a long way to go.

“I always want to tell my students about the story of GMOs kasi…kapag sinabi ko ‘to sa class and then of course natuwa ang students naintindihan niya and nakita niya ang value of having these benefits. It will spread kasi siguro kung kasama kumakain ang student with their families diba, so pwede nila mapagkuwentuhan…” he said.


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