General biology courses usually give a board overview of what qualifies as life, and what living organisms need to exist, survive, and reproduce. After covering the basics over a semester, I typically reserve the last section of material in my biology courses to discuss technology and scientific advancements.

It’s crazy how much science has been able to uncover in the last 60 years or so about how life really works. In the 1950s, scientific knowledge expanded when the strings of deoxyribonucleic acids (DNA) found inside our cells was determined to contain all the instructions needed to replicate life.

Then, in the 1960s, the genetic code found within DNA was deciphered, and the structure of DNA was determined. This knowledge was then built upon to produce organisms that contained genetic information from another source, essentially letting genes be spliced from one type of organism into another lifeform by the 1970s (example: bacterial DNA spliced into plant cells).

The 1980s brought about the age of genetically modified organisms, as the FDA approved the use of these modifications for medical purposes, such as the biosynthesis of human insulin produced by bacteria.

Our supermarkets didn’t get hit with the first GMOs until around the mid 1990s when the Flavr Savr tomato was introduced. This tomato was designed to have a prolonged ripening time so that the tomato could last longer on the supermarket shelves. Unfortunately, this tomato was not a big seller, mainly due to its lack of taste, thus defeating the flavor savoring design of the product. However, about the same time the first weed killer resistant GMOs were being planted, and farmers quickly saw that these plants could withstand major herbicide use, leading to a larger harvest. From these advancements genetically modified organisms are now common place in our lives with more than half of the foods in supermarkets being GMO or having fed off of GMO grain (livestock).

Although scientific opinion is that GMOs are safe, little research has been completed to document the health benefits or risks of eating GMO. There was a study published in 2012 that indicated that rats fed GMO food or food treated with herbicides were more likely to develop tumors, but this study was retracted shortly after meeting major criticism from the agriculture industry.

I find it a little troublesome that no further research is readily available on this topic, as GMO foods have been commonplace for almost 20 years. Other criticism to GMO crops is that it negatively impacts the pollinators (bees, moths, butterflies) when designed to be pesticide resistant. Many pesticides being used on these crops also kill these much needed animals, and the overuse of these GMO crops could be contributing to the decline in the bee population, and honey shortage. \

At the same time being a scientist, I see major benefits to GMOs such as nutritional value of rice, a major food staple for many countries, has been increased by adding the gene for vitamin A (beta-carotene) into the plant. Then there are the medical advancements that have been made with GMOs. With flu season quickly approaching, I’m very grateful to have received a vaccine for the flu virus, which was accomplished by GMO technology.

So there is no denying in my mind that GMO has some major benefits, despite having recently taken some major criticism. I’d be interested to see what another 50 years of advancing this technology will bring.

Amber Howard has been an assistant professor of biology at the University of Maine at Augusta since 2015. She is a 2011 Ph.D. graduate of Georgia Regents University, and recent postdoctoral researcher for the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory. She primarily focuses her research and teachings on physiology, disease mechanisms, and the biology of aging.

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