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DNA Technology and Genomics

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which contain recombinant DNA, are widely used in medicine and agriculture.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms whose genome was modified through the addition of recombinant DNA. They are widely used in medicine and agriculture. In the late 1970s, the first licensed drug was made using recombinant DNA in Escherichia coli bacteria: human insulin. This revolutionized the treatment for diabetic patients. Since then, a number of transgenic organisms have been used for medical purposes. Human growth hormone, the hepatitis B vaccine, and HIV tests are also made using recombinant DNA. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also approved a human blood thinner made using transgenic goats. In addition, genetically modified and transgenic mice are commonly used in medical research. Individual genes can be removed ("knocked out") from the mouse genome to test that gene's function. In other cases, a human gene can be inserted into the mouse genome ("knocked in") for research on its effects.

Genetically modified plants have been widely used in agriculture since the mid-1990s. Herbicide- and insect-resistant crops and crops designed to withstand harsh weather and long travel times to market are available. Although genetically modified plants are widespread in agriculture, no genetically modified animal meat has yet been successfully marketed. The development and use of genetically modified plants and animals has been hotly debated because of the fear of health risks and potential environmental impacts.
Genetic modification combines genes with desirable traits, such as pest resistance, into crop plants. A bacterium can be used to supply the piece of DNA for recombination and also act as the method to deliver the gene into the plant genome.
GMOs are also controversial from a legal perspective because they are produced by humans. Natural resources cannot be patented, but because GMOs do not occur naturally, the United States Supreme Court ruled that they can be patented. One prominent chemical and agricultural company owns the patent for the most popular agricultural herbicide and for genetically modified corn seeds that are immune to the herbicide. This company sells farmers both the herbicide and the seeds. If the corn seeds are found growing in a neighboring field (as did occur in Canada in the late 1990s), the company can sue the farmer for growing a "stolen" crop. The farmer claimed the seeds must have mistakenly traveled there from neighboring trucks and fields. However, the company won the court case.

Another case of genetic ownership involves a company that isolates genes used to test for breast and ovarian cancer. The test was expensive for the company to develop, and thus it wants to protect its investment. The company currently owns the patent on the genes, so it is the only company that can sell the test. Critics argue that because this test is so important for saving lives, its production and sale should not be limited by a patent. Critics also blame the gene patent for the high price of the test. As a result of this case, there is currently a legal argument in general over whether isolated genes should be patentable.