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A genetically modified organism, or GMO, is an organism that has had its DNA altered or modified in some way through genetic engineering. The answer to the question as to whether an organism has been genetically modified may depend on one’s definition. There are various processes through which an organism may be genetically modified, some resulting from very natural processes and some from the deliberate tinkering with the genome of the organism. Let’s take a look at some of these processes to get a better understanding.
Natural Selection is a natural process whereby an organism population may experience genetic change over multiple generations, due to environmental circumstances. For example, a microorganism can experience changes in its genome due to changes in its food supply, temperature of its environment, exposure to environmental toxins or competition from other organisms. This is a completely natural process, and it is happening all the time.
The rate of genetic change due to Natural Selection can be accelerated by deliberately exposing a population of a microorganism to conditions that may alter the genome, such as ultraviolet light. UV exposure can cause changes that may affect the organism on the genetic level. This method would be common when trying to increase the expression of genes that code for production of an enzyme protein or an antibiotic, for example. This is still considered to be natural, since it’s a random process and many generations must be screened for changes to be significantly affected. In the case of microorganisms, the result may even create a new strain of the species.
Genetic changes or “modifications” that occur as the result of Natural Selection do not result in what we would classify as a true GMO. Genetically modified organisms are living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering is the process of directly manipulating the genetic material of the organism. In order to do, this the entire genome must be mapped out and the function of each gene must be elucidated. Depending on the methods utilized to modify the organism, the result may or may not be classified as a Genetically Modified Organism.
There are two basic methods that are viewed differently in the United States and Europe. Insertion of DNA from another organism is clearly genetic modification, but under the European definition of a GMO, it is allowable to insert multiple copies of a native gene in order to increase expression of a trait carried by that gene. This is referred to as “self-cloning”, and as long as no foreign DNA is introduced, it is not considered to be a GMO according to the EU. However, that is not the case in the US, where self-cloning is considered a form of genetic modification, and classifies the resulting organism as a GMO.
So, as you can see, the answer to “Is it GMO?” often depends on your definition. What form of genetic modification has occurred, and was it due to natural processes or was it a result of actual insertion of genetic material either native or foreign? Understanding the differences will help you come to the right conclusion.
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John Davidson has been formulating enzyme based dietary supplements for more than 30 years, with a particular focus in human digestion. Davidson’s wide range of experience encompasses nearly all aspects of supplement manufacturing; including QC/QA, blending, encapsulation, tableting, research & development, product development and technical services. In his current role as the Director of Education and Innovation for Deerland Probiotics & Enzymes, Davidson is responsible for both new product innovation, collaborating with R&D and Sales to bring new products to market.