A Brief History of Genetic Engineering


Environmental Media Services

October, 2000


Genetically engineered (GE), or transgenic, foods are created by inserting modified genes - usually from foreign organisms like plants, animals or microbes - into the DNA of another organism. GE food products and additives are widely used in the U.S. (GE foods are also referred to as biotech, genetically modified [GM] and bioengineered.)

Thousands of genetically engineered organisms - mostly plants and bacteria, but animals, fungi and viruses as well - have been field tested to date. These are also categorized as GMOs, or genetically modified organisms.

Dozens of GE crops have already been grown, on almost 100 million acres worldwide. As yet there have been no well-documented cases of serious ecological damage from GE crops or animals. Research assessing how these organisms interact with the environment is scarce, however, and scientific understanding of this relationship is in its infancy.

Genetic engineering is not the same as conventional breeding, a traditional technology that can transfer genes only between plants of the same species. Genetic engineering allows genes to be transferred between two completely unrelated species. For example, strawberries have been genetically engineered with a flounder gene to make them frost resistant (not on the market). But vegetable hybrids like broccoflower - broccoli crossed with cauliflower, a fellow member of the Brassica oleracea species - are conventionally bred, not genetically engineered.

Firsts in Genetic Engineering

         First GE plant - A tobacco plant engineered with a yeast gene was created in 1982 by Mary Dell Chilton, a scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, and Andrew Binns from the University of Pennsylvania.

Forty-five GE crops have been approved for sale in the United States, including soybeans, chicory, squash, corn, cotton, tomatoes, potatoes, and canola.

The majority of processed foods in the U.S. now contain some genetically engineered ingredients, the Grocery Manufacturers of America reported in late 1999, saying "it would be very difficult for most mainstream supermarkets to go totally non-biotech." Processed foods, the mainstay of the American diet, often contain ingredients derived from GE corn starch and corn syrup; GE soy products like lecithin; margarine and oils from GE corn and soy; and animal products from livestock fed transgenic crops. Transgenic ingredients are also found in shampoos, soap, many cotton products, cosmetics and detergents.

Future products in development include:

         Plants and animals designed as "biofactories" to produce plastics and industrial chemicals

"Pharming" will produce GE plants and animals that provide medicines, edible vaccines and even spare body parts. Examples may include eggs engineered to include appetite-reducing antibodies for weight-conscious consumers and transgenic cows that produce lactose-free milk.