Food Biotechnology 101 (II) - Genetic Engineering
Connie Yeung, HK BioTek Intern
We have investigated one of the food biotechnology – fermentation technology. Now let’s explore the other technology, which is Genetic engineering.
Most of you may have heard of GM food. But what does it mean actually? GM food stands for ‘genetically modified food’, which is derived from genetically modified organisms in order to improve the quality of food.
In genetic engineering, direct manipulation or modification of an organism's gene is performed with the use of biotechnology. This kind of food technology can be applied in food production in many ways. The novel method for making cheese is one of them. Traditionally, cheese is made by extracting rennet – an enzyme from the stomach of young cows. In other words, we kill the cows for making cheese. Yet, researchers later found that microorganisms have the ability to produce rennet if we transfer a gene of from the cells that codes for rennet to them. The idea of making cheese by genetically altered microorganisms has revolutionized the cheese-making industry.
Most importantly, applying genetic engineering in agriculture can increase crops’ resistance to diseases, pests and herbicides. Elimination of weeds can be done without harming the crops and they can be free from diseases. Bt corn, for example, has high resistance towards diseases as the gene from an insect-killing bacterium is incorporated into the corn, so the use of pesticides can be reduced and farmers will have plentiful harvest.
The downside of genetic engineering
Although GM food can bring tremendous economic advantages to a nation, we should not turn a blind eye to its consequences. Environmentally, the problems brought by insects may be more serious. The non-resistant insects will be killed, but the proportion of resistant insects increases since they have more resources to survive and reproduce. In a long run, we will find it more difficult to use insecticides to control the insect population because of a high percentage of resistant insects present in the environment.
In terms of human health, there are major safety concerns caused by GM food. If a gene is extracted from an allergic organism during food production, allergenicity may occur in human body. Furthermore, when antibiotic-resistance gene is transferred to human pathogens, new antibiotic resistance may develop in humans, and it will be hard for us to use antibiotics to treat diseases.
Despite the impressive benefits of using biotechnology in food production, we need to be aware of the problems it created.