DNA Day experts answer your questions about the basics of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

Above: Image © ThamKC, iStockphoto.com

What is a GMO?

Genetically Modified Organism, could be a bacteria, plant or animal. This is not to confused though with genomics, which is the study of all the genes in an organism.

- Answer provided by Dr. Gijs Van Rooijen

What issues are there naming/classifying species in the age of GMOs and Biotechnology?

Generally, the name of the species remains the same after being modified by GM - GM generally only modifies a very small proportion of the organism's genetic material (<0.1%), so there is no significant change in the species designation. In the future of synthetic biology, where organisms are essentially "printed" using a "DNA printer", it's unclear how we will fit those organisms into the boxes we use to describe nature today.

- Answer provided by Dr. Sean Myles

Can we genetically modify animals to give them human traits?

What are "human" traits? Because all animals have evolved from a common ancestor I would argue that we share a nested hierarchy of traits already... and these shared derived traits are used to place things in a taxonomic framework (e.g. kingdom,phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, subspecies, population).

- Answer provided by Dr. Robert Hanner

We are currently genetically modifying organisms. In the case of genetically modified bacteria, what are the chances of the genetically modified bacteria mutating after the they have been released for use? For example, genetically modified bacteria are released into the ocean to clean up oil spills. What are the chances of those bacteria mutating to the point where they become pathogenic AND not be able to digest the spilled oil?

Here we enter the area of risk mitigation. First of all, mutations occur naturally over time in every organisms, even you. I can guarantee that these bacteria will mutate but so will every other bacteria in the world. The question you want to ask is: what are the risks associated with releasing this bacteria in nature? Does it outweight the potential benefits? If risks exists, how can they be mitigated in the worse case scenario? Remember, they are trying to fix a problem (oil spill) caused by humans in the first place.

- Answer provided by Dr. Sylvie Cloutier

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