GMOs Are Actually Thousands Of Years Old

By Debra Kelly on Tuesday, August 4, 2015
professional in uniform  examining corn cob on field
“The more you observe nature, the more you perceive that there is tremendous organization in all things.” —Carlo Rubbia

In A Nutshell

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been a hot topic of debate ever since we developed the technology to muck about with our food on a genetic level. It’s nothing new, though, and researchers have found that if it wasn’t for Mother Nature’s own experiments with using bacteria to alter the genes of the sweet potato, we might not have one of our Thanksgiving Day favorites. Corn was genetically altered with generations of selective breeding, too, but whether or not that means we should be interfering with nature is still up for debate.

The Whole Bushel

Nutritionists love buzzwords, and there are fewer topics that are hotter than GMOs. Whether or not they’re the next best thing or mankind’s greatest downfall remains to be seen, and while big names are arguing over creating them, they seem to overlook the fact that they aren’t the first. GMOs aren’t even close to a new thing.

In fact, the oldest GMO is 8,000 years old.

The International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, is a major center for agricultural research and development. As such, they’re extremely interested in where our foods are going and how they got to be where they are today. When they took a closer look at exactly what the genetic makeup of the sweet potato is, they found that it’s actually the first of the GMOs.

Creating the sweet potato didn’t take a laboratory; it only took some soil bacteria. Analyzing the genes of sweet potatoes grown around the world shows that the bacterial genes are present in at least 291 different varieties of sweet potato. That all suggests that bacteria in the soil was responsible for changing the genetic structure of a wild sweet potato ancestor into the edible root we know today.

The extra DNA inserted into the sweet potato meant that the modified plants were the ones that grew bigger. Those, of course, were the ones that were selected for domestication. The plants with the modified genetic structure were the ones that were grown, and they eventually spread all over the world.

That was about 8,000 years ago, and while researchers think that was just something of a natural occurrence, farmers in Central America were consciously doing something similar only about 1,000 years later.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota and Rutgers University looked at the way in which neolithic farmers grew maize. While there were a number of different varieties that were grown, farmers seemed to have focused on selective breeding—over hundreds of years—that caused the proliferation of one particular trait. When growing stalks of corn, farmers wanted fewer, shorter branches, because that meant more ears of corn.

Selective breeding targeted a gene called teosinte branched 1, and it changed the DNA makeup of the maize that was turned from wild plant to domestic crop. Over the course of somewhere between 300 and 1,000 years, farmers managed to genetically modify five different regions of the plant’s DNA to domesticate maize and make it a more profitable crop.

Some argue that we’re just speeding up the process a little bit. What took them hundreds of years might now take up a handful of generations of crops, with the end result being the same. That hasn’t made the fight over GMOs any less heated, though, and some have made some pretty wild claims. In 2013, environmental activists in India went so far as to claim the introduction of genetically modified cotton crops caused the suicide of 270,000 farmers.

So the question remains—do we mess with what we’ve found Mother Nature can do on her own, or do we just let her get on with it?

Show Me The Proof

NPR: Natural GMO? Sweet Potato Genetically Modified 8,000 Years Ago
Scientific American: A Hard Look at 3 Myths about Genetically Modified Crops
BBC News: Ancient farmers were GM experts