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Science and History of GMOs and Other Food Modification Processes

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How has genetic engineering changed plant and animal breeding?

Did you know?

Genetic engineering is often used in combination with traditional breeding to produce the genetically engineered plant varieties on the market today.

For thousands of years, humans have been using traditional modification methods like selective breeding and cross-breeding to breed plants and animals with more desirable traits. For example, early farmers developed cross-breeding methods to grow corn with a range of colors, sizes, and uses. Today’s strawberries are a cross between a strawberry species native to North America and a strawberry species native to South America.

Most of the foods we eat today were created through traditional breeding methods. But changing plants and animals through traditional breeding can take a long time, and it is difficult to make very specific changes. After scientists developed genetic engineering in the 1970s, they were able to make similar changes in a more specific way and in a shorter amount of time.

A Timeline of Genetic Modification in Agriculture

Timeline of Genetic Modification in Agriculture

Timeline of Genetic Modification

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Circa 8000 BCE Humans use traditional modification methods like selective breeding and cross-breeding to breed plants and animals with more desirable traits.

1866  Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, breeds two different types of peas and identifies the basic process of genetics.

1922  The first hybrid corn is produced and sold commercially.

1940  Plant breeders learn to use radiation or chemicals to randomly change an organism’s DNA.

1953  Building on the discoveries of chemist Rosalind Franklin, scientists James Watson and Francis Crick identify the structure of DNA.

1973  Biochemists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen develop genetic engineering by inserting DNA from one bacteria into another.

1982  FDA approves the first consumer GMO product developed through genetic engineering: human insulin to treat diabetes.

1986  The federal government establishes the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology. This policy describes how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) work together to regulate the safety of GMOs.

1992  FDA policy states that foods from GMO plants must meet the same requirements, including the same safety standards, as foods derived from traditionally bred plants.

1994  The first GMO produce created through genetic engineering—a GMO tomato—becomes available for sale after studies evaluated by federal agencies proved it to be as safe as traditionally bred tomatoes.

1990s  The first wave of GMO produce created through genetic engineering becomes available to consumers: summer squash, soybeans, cotton, corn, papayas, tomatoes, potatoes, and canola. Not all are still available for sale.

2003  The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations develop international guidelines and standards to determine the safety of GMO foods.

2005  GMO alfalfa and sugar beets are available for sale in the United States.

2015  FDA approves an application for the first genetic modification in an animal for use as food, a genetically engineered salmon.

Timeline of Genetic Modification in Agriculture

2016  Congress passes a law requiring labeling for some foods produced through genetic engineering and uses the term “bioengineered,” which will start to appear on some foods.

2017  GMO apples are available for sale in the U.S.

2019  FDA completes consultation on first food from a genome edited plant.


How are GMOs made?

“GMO” (genetically modified organism) has become the common term consumers and popular media use to describe foods that have been created through genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is a process that involves:

  • Identifying the genetic information—or “gene”—that gives an organism (plant, animal, or microorganism) a desired trait
  • Copying that information from the organism that has the trait
  • Inserting that information into the DNA of another organism
  • Then growing the new organism

How GMO's Are Made Fact Sheet

Making a GMO Plant, Step by Step

The following example gives a general idea of the steps it takes to create a GMO plant. This example uses a type of insect-resistant corn called “Bt corn.” Keep in mind that the processes for creating a GMO plant, animal, or microorganism may be different.

Making a GMO Plant, Step by Step - Identify

Identify

To produce a GMO plant, scientists first identify what trait they want that plant to have, such as resistance to drought, herbicides, or insects. Then, they find an organism (plant, animal, or microorganism) that already has that trait within its genes. In this example, scientists wanted to create insect-resistant corn to reduce the need to spray pesticides. They identified a gene in a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which produces a natural insecticide that has been in use for many years in traditional and organic agriculture.

Making a GMO Plant, Step by Step - Copy

Copy

After scientists find the gene with the desired trait, they copy that gene.

For Bt corn, they copied the gene in Bt that would provide the insect-resistance trait.

Making a GMO Plant, Step by Step - Insert

Insert

Next, scientists use tools to insert the gene into the DNA of the plant. By inserting the Bt gene into the DNA of the corn plant, scientists gave it the insect resistance trait.

This new trait does not change the other existing traits.

Making a GMO Plant, Step by Step - Grow

Grow

In the laboratory, scientists grow the new corn plant to ensure it has adopted the desired trait (insect resistance). If successful, scientists first grow and monitor the new corn plant (now called Bt corn because it contains a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis) in greenhouses and then in small field tests before moving it into larger field tests. GMO plants go through in-depth review and tests before they are ready to be sold to farmers.

The entire process of bringing a GMO plant to the marketplace takes several years.

Learn more about the process for creating genetically engineered microbes and genetically engineered animals.

What are the latest scientific advances in plant and animal breeding?

Scientists are developing new ways to create new varieties of crops and animals using a process called genome editing. These techniques can make it easier and quicker to make changes that were previously done through traditional breeding.

There are several genome editing tools, such as CRISPR. Scientists can use these newer genome editing tools to make crops more nutritious, drought tolerant, and resistant to insect pests and diseases.


How GMOs Are Regulated for Food and Plant Safety in the United States

GMO Crops, Animal Food, and Beyond

How GMO Crops Impact Our World

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