How could genetic engineering affect our future?

Genetic engineering - Patents and their effects - Genetic engineering methods - Genetic engineering risks

Genetic engineering and patents

Genetic engineering makes it possible to smuggle foreign genes into an organism. This changes the genetic information (DNA) of the organism. More on this under the methods of genetic engineering.

The Patenting of genetically modified plants and animals is ethically unacceptable. Even if methods for genetic manipulation are invented, no “creative” claim about the living being can be derived from them.

It is also worrying that the patents mean that genetic engineering organisms are always produced, released and marketed out of profit. This increases the profits of corporations and patent attorneys, while consumers, farmers and the environment bear the risks.

In principle, the following applies: During the term of the patents, the patented "products" should be exploited as profitably as possible. Patents on genetically modified experimental animals are therefore particularly ethically problematic: Patents on genetically modified animals turn animal suffering into a business. There is an economic incentive to carry out more and more animal experiments. In fact, the number of animal experiments in the field of genetic engineering has been increasing for many years.

Against this background, patents on genetically modified plants and animals are generally to be rejected. They mean that economic interests gain the upper hand over the need for protection of living nature. See also patents on living things from Testbiotech.

Genetic engineering in agriculture

Agro-genetic engineering is understood to mean the cultivation and use of genetically modified crops in agriculture. Above all, crops such as soy, corn and cotton are grown that have been made resistant to weed killers or produce insecticides. The main growing countries for GM food crops are Argentina, Brazil, Canada and the USA. In 2015, a genetically modified animal was also approved for food production for the first time, a “turbo salmon” that was manipulated with additional growth hormone genes. See also Agrogenechnik at Testbiotech

The consequences of the release and cultivation of GM crops

In several regions of the world we have already lost control of the spread of genetically modified organisms. Genetic engineering constructs can be found in wild relatives of cotton, rape and grass, among other things. Genetic engineering can also be found again and again in regional varieties such as maize in Mexico, the Philippines and South Africa. The following generations will have to live with the consequences of this uncontrolled spread. If long-term effects occur, it is often impossible to take effective countermeasures.

In countries like the USA there are more and more resistant weeds and the pests adapt to the genetic engineering plants. The result: a real arms race is taking place in the fields. The pollution of the environment and food with residues of residues such as glyphosate continues to increase.

Patenting and prices for seeds

The seeds of genetic engineering plants come almost exclusively from corporations that also manufacture pesticides: Monsanto, Dupont with Pioneer, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow AgroSciences are the names of the big names in the international seed business. These corporations buy up smaller seed companies, patent genes, and dominate the seed trade and the future of breeding. As a result, the prices of seeds in the US have risen dramatically since the introduction of genetic engineering.

From the very beginning, patents have been the main driving force behind large corporations in the agrochemicals sector to enter the genetically modified seed business. Possible markets and sales channels for genetic engineering products were systematically analyzed very early on in order to develop new profit strategies for the corporations. In 1992 the OECD published a survey of the companies that were then active in the field of agro-genetic engineering. The result: The corporations saw in genetic engineering from the beginning a huge opportunity to gain control over the seed markets and to extend this control to the entire chain of food production.

Agrogene technology in the EU

There are hardly any genetically modified crops grown in the EU. In Spain, around 100,000 hectares of maize are grown by Monsanto and Pioneer, which produces an insecticide (MON810). In contrast, over 50 different genetic engineering plants are already approved for import into the EU and for use in food and feed. The consequences of consuming these plants and the combined effects of their residues have never really been studied. We mainly import genetically engineered soy into the EU, which mainly enters the food chain via animal feed. Products such as meat, milk and eggs that come from these animals do not need to be labeled. See Testbiotech's genetic engineering database

Compared to countries like the USA, however, we in the EU can build much more freedom of choice for consumers and can take measures to protect GMO-free agriculture. Food, seeds and feed must be labeled accordingly. If GM crops are grown, they must be recorded in a register. The EU states can also object to the cultivation of genetic engineering plants. That could change if free trade agreements like CETA are signed. In the already negotiated CETA agreement between the EU and Canada, there is insufficient space for the cornerstones of EU legislation, freedom of choice and the precautionary principle.

But also in the EU the genetic engineering industry is working to undermine the existing protection standards: New genetic engineering processes (gene editing, synthetic genetic engineering) should no longer count as genetic engineering. Cloned meat can already come onto the market without labeling. At the same time, large corporations such as Bayer, Monsanto, DuPont and Dow AgroSciences are registering more and more patents on seeds that have been developed using these genetic engineering processes. In this way, patent protection could also assert itself in agriculture in the EU - without any genetic engineering labeling.

GM animals and patents

In the 1980s and 1990s, work was carried out on pigs that were supposed to be flu-resistant, others were supposed to digest their feed better or were treated with growth hormone genes. Sheep should produce wool without having to be sheared, and cows should even produce human breast milk. The efforts were given a considerable boost by the clone sheep "Dolly": Before Dolly, every genetic engineering animal was a kind of one-off, now you could make copies of the manipulated animals.

In 2015, genetically modified salmon from Aquabounty / Intrexon was approved for marketing in the USA. The GM salmon produces additional growth hormones and therefore grows much faster than normal salmon. Various companies are currently working on animals that have more muscles or that produce milk with modified ingredients or that are adapted to housing conditions. New genetic engineering processes (gene editing, synthetic genetic engineering) are used.

Insects are also genetically modified: The British company Oxitec develops genetic engineering insects for various applications. In Spain and Italy, Oxitec had submitted an application for the experimental release of genetically modified olive flies. Here the male animals are manipulated in such a way that their female offspring die, while the male offspring are not restricted in their ability to survive. This is intended to reduce the pest population. Olive flies are considered invasive, they spread quickly in suitable habitats - an experiment without any possibility of control. See also patents on living things under Testbiotech.

The use of genetic engineering on laboratory animals

For years, the official figures have shown a trend towards more and more experiments with genetically modified animals. In 2015, the number of genetic engineering animals used for experiments in Germany exceeded one million for the first time. These are mainly mice and rats.

The genetic modification of mammals is not ethically neutral, but in any case leads to suffering and pain. For the production of individual genetically modified mammals, high animal losses have to be accepted, since many animals are not born alive due to genetic defects or have to be killed because they are sick or not genetically modified as expected. In addition, other animals are used as surrogate mothers, egg or embryo donors, which is also associated with suffering and pain.

There is no direct medical or therapeutic benefit associated with these animal experiments: "Animal experiment models", that is, genetically modified animals with which certain human diseases are simulated, do not meet the expectations placed on them. In many cases, commercial interests seem to outweigh medical necessities. The excesses of the development are particularly evident in patent applications.

Patent applications for genetically modified animals are a clear sign that corporations and investors are ready to turn animal suffering into a business. The patents provide an economic incentive which, overall, leads to a significant increase in animal experiments. The term of a patent is 20 years. During this period, the patented “product” should be used profitably. This creates specific marketing pressure.

Despite all ethical reservations and relevant prohibitions in the patent laws, the European Patent Office has already granted a large number of patents on genetically engineered animals and their uses. The number of these granted patents is currently over 1,500, the number of registered applications as high as 5,000. Most recently, the European Patent Office even rejected objections to the patenting of genetically modified chimpanzees. The patents cover the respective methods, the animals themselves and their use. Affected species include primates, pigs, horses, sheep, goats, chickens, rabbits, fish, dogs, mice, cats, and rats.


The difference between genetic engineering and breeding

Conventional breeding works with whole cells and the complete genome of plants and animals. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, works with isolated DNA - according to the building block principle. The activity of the newly inserted DNA is enforced in genetic engineering. The normal gene regulation is bypassed so that the new biological information can be implemented in the target organisms. Genetic engineering is in contrast to breeding methods: It tries to force new metabolic pathways on the plants, while breeding calls on the plants' natural potential. Mutation breeding is also based on the mechanisms of evolution: Plants are constantly exposed to stimuli (such as UV light) that can cause mutations. There are permanent changes in their genetic make-up. However, it is up to the natural gene regulation of the plants to decide which of the mutations will ultimately prevail.

The change in gene function forced by genetic engineering often affects the activity of other genes in the plants. These unintended effects can affect the genome, the cell and / or the entire organism and the microorganisms associated with them. By means of genetic engineering, new proteins and metabolic functions are imposed on the plants (for example the production of insect venoms by inserting bacterial DNA), which cannot be achieved through mutation breeding and to which the plants are not adapted through evolutionary processes.

The differences are also evident in the specific applications of genetic engineering: desirable plant properties - such as higher harvests or tolerance to adverse environmental influences (e.g. climate change) - are difficult or impossible to achieve with the aid of genetic engineering. Modern breeding methods are often more successful here. There are good reasons for this: in many cases, the desired properties are not based on individual DNA segments, but on complex genetic interactions. These can be processed much better on the way of conventional breeding than by transferring “gene building blocks”.

Green, red and gray genetic engineering

Green genetic engineering genetic engineering operations on plants are called.

Under Red genetic engineering this technology is understood in the field of medicine. Interventions on animals are also included.

Gray or white genetic engineering means the application to microorganisms, bacteria and lower fungi. Enzymes, which are used in food and in industry for a wide variety of processes, are mostly produced in this way.

Methods of genetic engineering

Genetic engineering makes it possible to smuggle foreign genes into an organism. This will make the Genetic information (DNA) of the organism changed. However, since a gene is not only responsible for a certain property of an organism, but is involved in many processes, the effects are complex. The foreign genes are linked to regulatory elements (promoters) so that they can be read and implemented in the new cell. The place where the new genes are inserted is random. The regulatory mechanisms built into the genes cause profound changes. The range can hardly be foreseen.

A gene that is to be transferred into a cell is artificially incorporated into a gene construct outside the cell. The construct consists of a promoter, the desired gene and a terminator. The promoter causes the cell to read this gene as often as possible. The terminator allows this process to be interrupted so that only the desired gene and not several others are converted into protein, if possible.

The gene construct is now transferred into the cell. A common method is the use of a ballistic system: tiny gold nuggets are loaded with gene constructs and the cells are fired at. Occasionally, a gene construct gets stuck in the cell and can be incorporated into the cell's genetic material. Another method uses bacteria (e.g. Agrobacterium tumefaciens) that can infect plant cells. They are manipulated so that they contain the gene construct. After infection of the plant cell, the gene construct can in rare cases be incorporated into the genome.

In all of these cases the installation, if any, is accidental. If necessary, several constructs are also incorporated. The consequences cannot be calculated.

New methods in genetic engineering - genome editing - synthetic biology

In recent years, new genetic engineering processes have been developed that are essentially based on the following technical applications:

  • the artificial synthesis of DNA - with and without a natural template;
  • the possibility of a more targeted insertion of the DNA at almost every point of the genome, in particular with the help of nucleases or DNA scissors (gene editing);
  • Interventions in gene regulation (epigenetics).

With the new methods, radical changes in the genetic material are possible, such as changes in the DNA at several points in the genetic material or the insertion of genetic material for which there is no natural equivalent. See Testbiotech's Synthetic Biology.

With the help of so-called gene drive, the process of genetic manipulation can also be made hereditary. The following generations are then each genetically modified with regard to the genetic modification. When released, these plants and animals can spread through natural populations much faster than normal heredity allows. Whole species can be exterminated or their properties changed and ecosystems can be irreparably damaged.

The opinion of the genetic ethical network on these techniques.


Genetic Engineering Risks

The basic Risk of genetic engineering is the complexity of the system. Each gene is involved in different properties of an organism (a plant, an animal, a cell). Genes or gene sequences are switched on and off in the cell. Large parts of the genome are not used by the organism at all. Therefore, no one can predict what effects the changes in a gene will have. However, tests of all side effects are very time-consuming and therefore expensive.

Become genetically modified plants in the field When cultivated, their pollen and seeds - and with them their genetic information - fly into the surrounding area. So that's that Extent of spread no longer controllable. The changed genetic information can be transferred to other plants of the same or a related species and trigger unexpected effects there. This also means that consumers have no freedom of choice.

However, products from genetically modified organisms ultimately end up in our food chain, directly as food and indirectly as animal feed.

Genetic engineering - pros and cons

Genetic engineering is described by some as the research of the future. Is that she?

Pro genetic engineering:

  • Genetic engineering enables the introduction of alien properties

Contra genetic engineering:

  • The effects of a change cannot be foreseen
  • The regulation in the cell is disturbed
  • Tests of all side effects are expensive and are therefore avoided whenever possible
  • Outdoor cultivation makes the spread uncontrollable

Example of genetically modified plants

Amflora - genetically modified potato

Amflora is one genetically modified potato varietydeveloped by BASF. It only produces one type of starch (amylopectin) and is therefore of interest to the industry that uses this type of starch. Usually potatoes produce two different types of starch (amylopectin and amylose). There is no separation of the two types of starch when processing Amflora. The potato was not intended as food, but leftovers from production should be allowed to be used as animal feed thus get into the food chain.

The new property was achieved by introducing a gene sequence into the hereditary information of the potato that is an exact mirror image of the gene sequence that produces amylose. This gene sequence effectively blocks the genes that produce amylose, as the mirror-image information accumulates when the genetic information is copied. The genetic information itself was not changed. There was also a conventionally grown potato that had the same properties.

At the same time, the Amflora potato had one Marker gene introduced that the plant resistant to certain antibiotics makes. This made it possible to distinguish between plants with the desired property and plants without this property. Now there is a fundamental risk that the property of antibiotic resistance will pass over to other plants or organisms. This risk was classified as low in the approval process and the potato was approved for cultivation in Europe.

Following a lawsuit by the Hungarian government, this approval was revoked in 2013 due to formal errors. However, BASF had already withdrawn the plant from the market in Europe in 2012 due to a lack of acceptance.

Herbicide-resistant soy from Monsanto

The genetically modified soy is insensitive to the herbicide glyphosate due to an alien gene. This remedy is also used by Monsanto expelled.

The genetically modified soy is grown on a large scale in the USA, Brazil and Argentina. Europe imports soy as animal feed. It was easy for the farmers to kill the weeds alongside the soy with glyphosate. Many plants and weeds have now become insensitive to the herbicide, so it had to more and more are injectedto get the weeds under control. The corporations now offer a wide variety of herbicide mixtures to keep the plague under control. What about the residues in the harvested soy? And what about the health of the people who live near the fields? The herbicides are sprayed over a large area there by plane.