QWhats the difference between Transgenic and Genetically Modified?

Whats the difference between Transgenic and Genetically Modified?

AExpert Answer

Thanks for a great question!! Your question addresses much of the confusion in the popular press. To a geneticist, genetic modification means exactly what the words say: there is modification in the genetic material. This heritable form of variation of course is caused by mutation. Mutation can be natural or induced. Classic agents that induce mutation are some chemicals and some forms of radiation. For years, plant breeders have used induced mutation breeding to create favorable traits in plants as well as other organisms. These investigators treat seed with a powerful mutagenic agent and then screen progeny arising from these seeds for the trait of interest. The breeders also select against detrimental traits caused by the mutagen. These detrimental mutations are much more common than advantageous changes.


“Natural” mutations can also be caused by the radiation and chemicals we expose ourselves to in our normal life; however, most natural mutations occur when cells make mistakes in copying their DNA.


Transgenic refers to the movement or insertion of a gene into an organism that normally does not have a copy of that gene. It also can be natural or it can be induced. A recent paper (Kyndt et al 2015 Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences 112: 5844) documents the natural transfer of some bacterial genes into sweet potato using exactly the same transferring system that is used by scientists to make some of the transgenic crops now on the market. On top of this, some organisms have the ability to make new genes by combining pieces of older existing genes (reviewed in Lal and Hannah, 2005 Proc. Natl Acad Sciences 102:9993).


With this background, it should be clear that the use of the term “GMO” to describe transgenic organisms is simply wrong. But the misuse of the term is now so popularized that it is virtually impossible to change. It should also be clear that transgenic approaches are no more “unnatural” than mutation breeding, yet mutation breeding does not receive the negative press that transgenic research does. This distinction makes no scientific sense.


What does make infinite sense though is that some groups wish to increase their market share by demonizing transgenic plants. I find their position indefensible given how this gene technology can help feed people in developing countries, keep our food costs as low as possible and aid the environment by reducing our carbon footprint and reducing soil erosion.

Posted on July 30, 2018
Genetic engineering (GE) touches on the routine life of billions of people (but not everyone). Food, clothes, and medicine are commonly made with the help of genetically engineered organisms. Certain medicines, like insulin, could only be mass-produced this way. Fiber for clothes is made less expensive thanks to GE cotton plants. You also PROBABLY sometimes eat plants with a few engineered genes, depending on where you live. But genetic engineering isn’t just for making new or better... Read More
Posted on February 28, 2018
This is an important question! Of course scientists wouldn't want to release any plants or products that would be harmful to humans. The first part of the answer is that I'm not aware of ANY examples of released GMOs hurting human bodies. In fact, GMO (or genetically engineered, GE) crops have actually helped both plants and human health, by making harvests more efficient and reducing the need to spray harmful pesticides. Safety to humans is an important part of the... Read More
Posted on May 30, 2018
I think the answer for this question is – it depends…. In the developed world where we have access to a wide variety of foods, I think that eating a food derived from a genetically engineered crop it unlikely to expand one’s life expectancy in and of itself.  However, certain components of those crops can certainly contribute to improved health. High oleic soybeans produce a monounsaturated fat that is trans-fat free. Trans-fats can contribute to an increased LDL... Read More

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