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Horizontal Gene Transfer, Part 1: Nature's GMOs

We’re learning more about how genes are transferred all the time. We’re learning more about how genes are transferred all the time.

 

Genetic engineering (GE) is a term used to describe a scientific procedure created by humans that inserts genes of bacteria, vitamins, plants, or animals into the genetic makeup of another organism. The technology is relatively new.

In 1971, the first successful transfer of a gene between two unrelated organisms was carried out by Stanford University scientist Paul Berg, earning him the Nobel Prize in chemistry. This moment in time marked the invention of recombinant DNA technology and the beginning of man's experiments with gene modification.

While researchers at the time may have undoubtedly realized the potential of this new field of biology for medicine, few could foresee its impact on agriculture. Modified organisms remain as controversial today as they were in 1994, when the first genetically engineered food hit supermarket shelves in the form of a Flavr Savr tomato.

Horizontal gene transfer has been a predominate factor in the evolution of bacteria and viruses.

Since then, no conclusive evidence has been found to either condemn or vindicate GE food. Because there is so much at stake, including proprietary secrets of biotechnology firms and millions of dollars in potential revenue, GMOs have yet to receive a fair and unbiased review from the scientific community.  

But as the debate rages concerning the impact of GMOs on the body and the environment, a small field of study in molecular biology has yet to claim its place in the dispute. It is nature's method of genetic engineering, a process called horizontal gene transfer.

In biology, genetic lineages have traditionally been characterized by a tree formation, meaning that traits from one generation of life on earth to its progeny occurs in a branched, linear, and ultimately traceable manner.

With the discovery of horizontal gene transfer, however, the "tree of life" is no longer a reputable allegory for the evolution of life on earth. This is because organisms of two completely different species have been discovered to have the capacity to swap genes.

What this effectively means is that nature, by nature, has the potential to create transgenic organisms.

Horizontal gene transfer has been a predominate factor in the evolution of bacteria and viruses. In fact, it is by this very method that both are able to mutate, create new illnesses, become resistant to antibiotics and pesticides, and trick our immune system into defeat. Bacteria and virus cells share their genetic material with other unrelated bacteria and viruses, transferring it to one another outside of normal reproduction cycles. This is done through physical contact, using viruses as a catalyst, and transformation.

What has been even more startling to scientists is that this type of gene transfer is not limited only to unicellular organisms. Examples of horizontal genetics can be observed in the evolution of fungi, plants, and even insects. Since most biological studies over the past century have focused primarily on vertical gene transfer, horizontal gene transfer is still regarded as a little understood phenomena.

"Studies show that the transfer [of genes] can occur not only among but also between domains in all possible directions," Luis Boto of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, Spain said in 2009. "[T]here is a need for a new paradigm in evolution that includes horizontal gene transfer."

What does this mean for GMO debate? Continue reading about horizontal gene transfer in our next segment, coming later this week.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 03 December 2013 11:30

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