Saving us from widespread famine is in itself a solid reason for pursuing genetic modifications of organisms in our food chain.
After all, avoiding famine and disease is a big part of the reasoning behind other farming efforts such as widespread antibiotic use in livestock. Keeping more animals healthy and alive means more meat for more tables…unfortunately those tables got over-turned when germs decided to do a little self-gene-manipulation.
The silent war – germs that can modify their genes in real-time
Far too few people realize that all organisms are, and always have been, in the genetic modification game. At the moment, the biggest threat from naturally occurring gene modifications comes from bacteria that are evolving in order to conquer environmental threats – namely antibiotics. Viruses, micro-sized fungi and parasites are evolving too and becoming increasingly treatment resistant as well.
Some people blame the ag industry for the rise of antibiotic-resistant infectious agents. But it is the widespread overuse of antibiotics in both humans and animals – as well as too few people actually finishing their antibiotics – that sped up the evolution of antibiotic-resistant nasties.
Making matters worse is the scary fact that germ evolution is not contained to reproduction and changes made over generations. Not that that is any less scary considering very little time elapses between germ generations.
But scarier still are the many ways germs have to transfer and modify their genes on the fly, so to speak. And here some of you thought human scientists doing gene modifications over the course of many years of research was a little scary. Nope, we have nothing on Mother Nature.
To understand better how regular germs do their own genetic manipulations to become supergerms, check out this short, animated Ted Ed video.
Genetically-modified organisms present a good defense against supergerms
So what does the evolution of antibiotic-resistant supergerms have to do with genetically-modified organisms on the farm? More than you might first think.
Scientists are hard at work genetically modifying and genetically editing livestock and food plants to make them highly disease resistant, even to supergerms. An often overlooked side effect of this is the creation of a natural barrier to human diseases of all kinds.
For example, if molds can no longer grow on food plants, they don’t get ingested by animals or people. People and animals can’t be exposed in other ways like touching the mold on these plants either.
Similarly, if bacteria and viruses cannot survive in animal hosts, the spread of disease is slowed and mutations that attack people become far less likely. Where would the swine flu be without the pigs, you see? Or the bird flu without domesticated chickens, turkeys and ducks?
Will these natural barriers prevent all diseases? Of course not.
For one thing, wild animals and civilized humans are not genetically modified, at least they aren’t at the moment, and thus are capable of harboring and growing bacteria and viruses that can then evolve to attack humans or attack more of them.
For another, not all livestock is genetically-modified and certainly those that are modified aren’t necessarily genetically-modified against the same diseases. So, while genetically-modified organisms on the farm do erect a natural protective barrier, there are some holes in that barrier at the moment.
Even so, as genetically-modified organisms become more common, the barrier against diseases becomes stronger.
Genetically-edited organisms on the offense
Organisms can be genetically modified or edited specifically to proactively destroy disease transfer mechanisms and to outright eliminate threatening diseases too. You might recall an earlier post wherein I told you how scientists were using gene-editing (and throwing in self-perpetuating gene-editing drives too) in mosquitoes to eliminate deadly and catastrophic diseases such as Zika and Malaria.
The Zika virus in particular is a threat to an entire generation of humans. It causes microcephaly in children when pregnant women are bitten by a mosquito carrying the virus. And it causes lifelong and serious health problems for these children, even if they do somehow escape having microcephaly which looks like this:
But malaria is nothing to scoff at either. It kills 1000 people per day on average.
Now think about the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) is reporting that unprecedented progress in malaria prevention and control over the past 15 years is “threatened by emerging resistance to insecticides among Anopheles mosquitoes and to antimalarial medicines among Plasmodium parasites.”
Yeah, it’s getting ugly in the war against disease and both sides are trying to win through the same tactic: rapid gene modification.
All told, genetically-modified and genetically-edited organisms are some of our best defenses against diseases now and after our last antibiotic fails.
And make no mistake, our last antibiotic has failed already.
“A last-ditch weapon against drug-resistant bacteria has met its match in Pennsylvania,” according to a report in Science News.
The news gets worse in that article. That bacteria carries a gene that provides the antibiotic resistance but that “gene rides on a transferable loop of DNA called a plasmid… Bacteria can swap plasmids like trading cards, effectively spreading instructions for antibiotic resistance.”
Think that over the next time you hear a debate over whether GMOs are “safe.” Certainly prudence calls for careful progress in genetic-modifications, but ditching this line of defense outright could be the death of us all in the end.