Kids’ Guide to Genetic Engineering

Evolution, peas and genetics: Tiki’s quick look …. in pictures

More money! Er help!

(Horse): More…. more money! Uh oh! (Planet): Oh no! Help!

This is probably the way many people see genetic engineering — just another way of big powerful companies making loads of money because they can own genes. But their eyes are fixed on money and they fail to notice the disaster which is almost on them.


What disaster?

Companies exist to make money. That is their purpose and, until recently, their only purpose. But in today’s crowded, overheated and polluted planet, it seems that genetic engineering, if we take the example of food plants, is already proving useful. And it doesn’t have to mean more money for the corporations .

The corporations have had an inglorious history of rushing to patent anything they could before some other competitor got there first. Biopiracy was rampant, i.e. pinching other people’s seeds under some pretext and then patenting whatever novel sequences of genes they found.

In Africa, several biotechnology research groups are developing varieties of sweet corn which withstand serious drought and resist disease. The seeds are free to local farmers who can be fairly sure that this improved maize will allow their families to avoid starvation during the dry season.
Of course, nobody should be dying of starvation in a world with plenty of food and this is where genetic engineering (GE) can really make a difference. But how? By making food crops like maize, bananas, yams, cassava, cow peas, sorghum, rice, potatoes and many others resistant to pests and diseases, resistant to drought, richer in nutrients and which store well. These are qualities which are needed now. New gene editing techniques like CRISPR are already being tried in East Africa (Kenya) but there is always a problem: people who object to genetic engineering of any sort will not support anything like CRISPR and have turned many governments away from this route. And then, these same people will say, “look: genetic engineering is a failure. Where are all these wonderful promised crops?” The answer of course is that because of the objections, so many countries have banned genetic engineering totally so it became a self fulfilling prophecy.

Genetic engineering – my guide

When I was a young penguin, I was scared about the then-new science of genetic engineering.

GMOs and reality

This GMO never existed but it is an example of scare tactics

(This was back in the 1990s and I’m older and wiser now – us penguins live quite a long time.) Back then, there were a lot of protests against genetic engineering and a lot of people thought it might be risky to human health and harm the environment. So scientists in the early days of genetic engineering did the sensible and responsible thing and asked other scientists to join with them at Asilomar (California) in 1975. They discussed possible risks and began to sort out a framework for developing this new science, so that they would be well aware of the possible problems.

It turns out we protestors were wrong. Now, more than 25 years after genetic engineering began to be used on a large scale in farming, scientists agree that the dangers were hyped and that the technology has in fact been overwhelmingly beneficial. And no, I haven’t been bought off by Monsanto sending me free fish! I’m just a penguin who believes in following the scientific consensus on an issue – that’s why I’m concerned about climate change, and that’s why I’ve changed my mind on GMOs.

Monsanto was a corporation which at one time produced chemicals like PCBs, DDT and Agent Orange used by US forces during the Vietnam war to kill the rainforest trees. It has long been number one evil corporation in the eyes of the greens. More recently, Monsanto began to specialise in biotechnology of which genetic engineering is a part. The company was the first to develop and patent GM soybeans resistant to Monsanto’s potent weedkiller, glyphosate. This particular crop had been genetically modified to be unaffected by glyphosate, now out of patent. People who wanted to grow the resistant GM seed had to agree to use Monsanto’s own glyphosate weedkiller called Roundup. Today, Monsanto doesn’t exist any more having been absorbed into crop sciences giant Bayer.

These days, many politicians pretend there is no such thing as truth. Why? In order to make you believe their lies . So it is more important than ever to defend science. Science is the way you clever humans can find true things out about the world and try to understand how it works and how to solve problems. Science isn’t something you can choose to believe or not. It’s just fact. You can try not believing in gravity if you want, but don’t try to fly. As a flightless bird, I can ‘fly’ underwater as can all my friends


Lies, damned lies and statistics
Many politicians are honest and genuine people trying to make a better world for everybody. Some are not and some lie a lot, often using bogus statistics to support a weak argument. There is an old joke which says that you can tell when a politician is lying because their lips are moving. In other words, everything they say is a lie. I hope this joke is not true because it’s not very funny, is it?

My friends over at the Cornell Alliance for Science make it their business to defend science, from climate change to vaccines to GMOs. The scientific debate about the safety of genetic engineering is over. The science is clear. And the anti-science people who deny the scientific consensus about GMO safety are not telling the truth. And many are the same people who deny climate change or sow doubt about vaccines.

Because of the success of anti-GMO campaigners, unfortunately many countries now have laws banning scientists from being able to use genetic engineering. This might sound like a sensible precaution, but actually if you stop scientists doing their work then you might find you cannot solve new, unexpected, important problems. The European Union has banned GMOs and rather embarrassingly the European Parliament had to make an exception to anti-GMO regulations in order to allow scientists to develop vaccines to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Whoops! Many of these vaccines use genetic engineering and biotechnology, and a good thing too! Politicians should be more respectful of science and (as Greta Thunberg always says) follow the science, and not attempt to trash it if they happen to disagree.

Another example of how bans on genetic engineering can hurt humanitarian causes is the story of Golden Rice. This rice was genetically engineered to make it yellow and deliver beta-carotene, an essential nutrient that we all need in the form of Vitamin A. In many poorer countries in Africa and Asia, children don’t get enough Vitamin A, which leads to hundreds of thousands of deaths and blindness. But the anti-GMO people have done their utmost to stop Golden Rice ever being given to the poor. I don’t know about you, but that makes me really angry.  Golden Rice is still not permitted to be grown anywhere in the world except the Philippines and malnourished children are still dying as a result.

the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines has been in the forefront of Golden Rice development. Three major international regulatory bodies (including the USA’s FDA) have validated Golden Rice’s safety and nutritional value. IRRI is developing biofortified rice varieties with enriched micronutrient content such as provitamin A, iron, and zinc.
One of the biggest arguments against GMOs was always that they were unnatural. Man playing God and that kind of thing. You remember the images of half-tomato/half-fishes? Yuk! These kinds of pictures, as well as being fake, play to the emotions so are very good at tricking us all into ignoring science. When your feelings get involved, especially feelings of disgust and fear, your rational brain switches off — which is just what the anti-science people want. It helps them fundraise for a start!

This shows how much of the food you eat is taken from plants that have been busy transforming themselves by lateral gene transfer, a polite way of saying they have stolen the most useful genes from other plants and left the rest; they have cherry picked the best. If humans had done the exact same thing, then the plant would be called a GMO and there would be a big outcry if anybody tried to grow or eat it. If you are still fearful that GMOs are ‘unnatural’ and are out to get you, please think again!

Actually genetic engineering is perfectly natural. The bacterium that scientists originally used to modify plant DNA – called Agrobacterium – has already been smuggling its genes into plant cells for millions of years. Scientists can sequence plant DNA and find these genes in fact. Did you know that sweet potato is a natural GMO, for instance? Scientists now know that ‘horizontal gene transfer‘ happens a lot in nature, and that so-called species boundaries are being transgressed all the time. Much of your own DNA originated in viruses in fact. You are also a GMO!

Horizontal gene transfer(also called “lateral gene transfer”) is going on everywhere especially if you happen to be a bacterium which causes illness in humans. Humans discovered antibiotics decades ago and have been wasting them ever since (but that’s another story). Killing bacteria by using antibiotics is clever but it also puts the bacteria under pressure. A few always survive and quickly multiply, swapping genes all the time as they do this. The swapped genes are called plasmids. It is these horizontally transferred plasmids which make bacteria resistant to antibiotics and, as you probably know, antibiotic resistance is a serious problem today.It also turns out that gene transfer is extremely common
One of the strongest opponents of genetic engineering has always been the organic farming industry. Back when everyone thought GMOs were unnatural and scary, this might have made sense for a while. But now that science shows quite clearly that genetic engineering is safe and can help reduce pesticides, why do the organic people still oppose it? I may only be a penguin, so not nearly so smart as you humans, but to my mind the best thing would be an ‘organic GMO’ – where genetic engineering could be used to allow plants to defend themselves using biology rather than artificial chemicals.

One example might be blight-resistant potatoes. Potato blight is a pretty nasty pathogen . Notoriously, it caused the Irish Potato Famine in the mid-19th century, when a million people starved to death. Today farmers control potato blight using fungicides. They have to spray (sometimes 15 times) their potato plants if they don’t want the crops to fail and end up a slimy stinking mess. But clever scientists have developed potatoes with genes that resist infection by the disease-causing pathogen Great!

Papas del Peru

Catalogue of potatoes from Peru

That means fungicides don’t have to be sprayed, and the crop could be labelled organic, right? Wrong! Unfortunately, most of the people who prefer organic produce are so blinded by the ‘naturalness’ myth that they won’t accept any use of genetic engineering. And even though GM blight resistant potatoes have been around for years, you still can’t buy them in the shops or grow them in Europe. That makes me feel quite sad.Potato facts

Coronavirus, just one example of a lot of nasty pathogens

Coronavirus, just one example of a lot of nasty pathogens

A pathogen is an organism — usually a bacterium, a fungus or virus (such as Covid19) — which infects and usually kills other living things

A myth is a story that isn´t true.
Originally from the Peruvian Andes, potatoes are one of the world’s most important food crops with about 370 million tonnes produced each year. Potatoes (called ‘papas’ in Perú) — make up several thousand varieties in all different shapes and sizes are known. Some even resist frost which normally kills the leaves.

Science doesn’t stand still, and biotechnology is no different. Scientists today can do things that were not even dreamed about when genetic engineering was in its infancy back in the 1970s. In particular you may have heard of a new thing called CRISPR which allows scientists to edit genes, a bit like you can edit something you have written on a computer. That means people can now delete faulty genes or make other tweaks to change how genes work.

CRISPR-Cas9 finds the precise place to cut out a faulty gene

What does CRISPR stand for?

Are you ready for this? OK…here goes: Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeats. It usually comes with ‘Cas 9’ after it: CRISPR Cas 9. Cas 9 is an enzyme (a special type of protein) which acts like a pair of scissors, snipping the DNA code very precisely.

So are these new gene editing tools creating GMOs? The anti-science people certainly think so, and have succeeded in getting Europe to ban gene editing in food and agriculture. But most of the changes induced by CRISPR could have happened anyway through natural mutation if you were prepared to wait long enough – and no-one can even tell the difference. Gene editing does not necessarily involve the introduction of ‘foreign’ DNA from other species, which what so many people used to be scared about (recombinant DNA).

In fact CRISPR is such an important innovation that the scientists who discovered it have been awarded a Nobel Prize. This technology could help humans with everything from curing diseases to helping reduce climate change so banning it makes no sense at all. Okay, I’m just a penguin, but I still don’t see how so many people who think of themselves as ‘environmentalists’ oppose useful technologies that could really help the environment!

Emmanuelle and Jennifer (right)

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna (right)

The two scientists, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their pioneering work on CRISPR.

it’s important for people to understand that all crop breeding techniques involve rearrangements and changes to genes. The risks of using these new breeding technologies are no greater than for older breeding technologies, the products of which are subject to far fewer checks. (Nicola Patron, Earlham Institute, Norwich)

Colourful corals

Colourful corals and other wonderfully diverse sea creatures

Another big debate is how far GMOs can and should be used in the natural environment. One example is genetically modified corals, which would help save coral reefs from going extinct as the oceans get hotter due to global heating. Should they be allowed? Another is a GM chestnut, which contains a gene which protect the fabled chestnut trees which once dominated forests in the eastern US from the deadly blight that has all but eliminated them.

Leaves of the American chestnut

Leaves and seeds of the American chestnut

Could forest ecosystems still be called ‘natural’ if they include trees with a gene introduced by humans? And does it even matter?

What scares me most about the loud arguments and misinformation about genetics is that it is the poor people who need these technologies who’ll may be denied access to them because of the vague fears and prejudices of those who have enough to eat.

Genetic engineering has been used for more than 40 years and in all that time, there has not been a single case of harm to human health or the environment
Pamela Ronald, plant geneticist speaking at a TED talk in 2015

I don’t like people who tell lies in order to stop science, but I do think it is a good idea to talk about how far technologies should be used and in whose interests. Most scientists I know are fine with this! But there are no easy answers — and there are a lot of problems to solve. What matters is that those who think about these issues and discuss them know what they are talking about. So I hope that this guide has helped you with some of the basics. There is a lot more to all of these stories, of course. All I’d say is: don’t believe everything you read on the internet.