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Horizontal Gene Transfer, Part 2: Natural and Synthetic Mutants

Tinkering with the genetics of our food could prove detrimental. Tinkering with the genetics of our food could prove detrimental.


Horizontal gene transfer is nature's way of swapping genes between unrelated species. This process has had a great impact on the development of man-made GMOs, perhaps even as the inspiration for it. But while nature provides a model for advancements in biology and medicine, many of its methods are still little understood. As man probes deeper and deeper into the natural world, information long unknown to science is revealed.

Horizontal gene transfer is one of these unexpected breakthroughs. In the early 1950s, the phenomena was first explored during diphtheria research in Seattle and recognized as a significant factor in biology.

Prior to its discovery, science knew gene transfer strictly as a generational mechanism that passed down genetic lineages vertically from parent to offspring. When this was proven incorrect around mid-century, the theory of evolution was updated to accommodate the new data, proving genetics was a network more complicated and diverse than previously thought.

When man engineers his food in laboratories, we imitate nature without completely understanding its finer inner workings.

Although this new type of gene transfer has been observable by science for the last 70 years, its impact on the evolution of plants and animals is not fully known. In his paper, “A New Paradigm For Biology,” University of Connecticut molecular biologist Dr. Peter Gogarten explains that "While horizontal gene transfer is well-known among bacteria, it is only within the past 10 years that its occurrence has become recognized among higher plants and animals. The scope for horizontal gene transfer is essentially the entire biosphere, with bacteria and viruses serving both as intermediaries..."

Although gene transfer could be argued to be natural, since it is indeed a process of nature, the artificial engineering of genes by man always results in a synthetic product.

When man engineers his food in laboratories, we imitate nature without completely understanding its finer inner workings.

Since horizontal gene transfer is still relatively new to evolutionary and biological science itself, it can only stand to reason that there are still many complexities to the phenomena that will eventually be revealed. As for now, genetically engineered food remains a crude foray into horizontal gene transfer without long-term studies on human health or the environment.

What it means in the larger scope of things is that humans are disturbing the natural course of evolution by using bacterial mechanisms that are ultimately unpredictable or even unstable. How they are digested by humans, what impact they have on the human body, how they integrate themselves into nature, how modified genetic material can persist in nature or even how bacteria within genetically modified organisms could be vectors for unintended gene transfers has not received a definite review by science.

Artificial gene transfer has the potential to impact humans and nature on an immediate and very direct biological level. Horizontal gene transfer is prevalent enough in nature that inserting bacteria into food makes it a natural vector for unintended genes transfers to occur. Whether these unintended gene transfers will ultimately be beneficial or detrimental, harmless or damaging, is only a question the future, or a proper scientific review, can answer.

The process by which nature evolves cannot be equated in man-made replicas. Humans are often unaware of the scope of our actions. Without being able to observe the concrete results of testing, it is impossible to accurately predict an outcome of genetically engineered organisms in the environment. To err is human. When dealing with food, the fuel of our existence, the risk is far too precious.

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Dig in to this series on genetic transfer to learn more about this fascinating process.

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