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A pig kidney transplant, and then a pig heart transplant: How GMOs are saving lives

Transplanted pig organs show us once again the huge possibilities of using genetic modification for individuals and society.

Every day, 17 Americans die waiting for an organ transplant. But revolutionary experiments show that there may be a new way to save the more than 100,000 people waiting for an organ in the United States: A scientific paper published last week described how a team of surgeons successfully transplanted a pig kidney into a brain-dead patient, and a man in desperate need of a heart received a new one this month, also from a pig.

GMOs may be called “unnatural,” but this is less a line of reasoning and more of an insult.

Normally, the human body would reject a transplanted pig organ, but these transplants were successful because the organs they received were genetically modified to be accepted by the recipients. Despite breakthroughs like these, genetic modification and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have a bad name in some circles. They’re maligned as “unnatural.” They’re portrayed as possibly dangerous, with “no scientific consensus” on their safety. GMOs are even given silly names, like “frankenfish.”

But genetic modification doesn’t deserve this reputation. Modern techniques of genetic modification are just a variation of processes that have existed for millions of years, and our millennia of modifying other organisms have provided tremendous benefits to humanity. The life-saving potential of transplanted pig organs shows us once again the huge possibilities of using genetic modification for individuals and society.

GMOs may be called “unnatural,” but this is less a line of reasoning and more of an insult. Our lives are full of things, such as indoor plumbing, that can be called “unnatural.” After all, I’ve never seen a wild sink or a herd of bathtubs roaming through Yellowstone. But I’ve also never heard anyone say that because sinks are unnatural, we should go back to drinking water straight from rivers.

There’s no solid line that divides “natural” from “unnatural.” Many people would say that something is “natural” if it occurs in nature without requiring human influence. But one organism that has DNA from another organism is about as natural as can be.

Every living thing has a genome, a library full of segments of DNA that give cells instructions on what to do. On an evolutionary level, the genome of every organism alive has been inherited and modified from that of its ancestors by natural processes to create the magnificent variety of life on Earth we see today. We ourselves have had a hand in that process ever since humanity domesticated dogs 15,000 years ago.

Today there are over 300 breeds of dog because of millennia of selective breeding for specific traits. Intentionally pairing up dogs with the thickest fur coats in the hopes of them producing offspring with even thicker fur coats will result in puppies with different genomes and thicker fur coats than would occur without human influence.

Selective breeding is a type of genetic modification, but the kind that people object to usually involves directly modifying an organism’s genome, similar to adding or removing an instruction manual to the genomic library. But many organisms can actually do this without any human involvement.

Through the process of horizontal gene transfer, one organism can give part of its own genetic material to another, with sometimes one organism physically giving part of its genome to another organism (like one library giving a book to another library), and sometimes by an organism picking up a stray bit of DNA floating around (like a librarian picking up a pamphlet lying on the ground and donating it to the library). It’s possible that a species of parasite, for instance, gained the ability to infect animal hosts by receiving DNA from a bacterium through horizontal gene transfer.

One main method of gene editing used by scientists today is based on how bacteria protect themselves from viruses through a process called CRISPR. When a virus enters a bacterial cell, the bacteria can take a part of the virus’s DNA and then use that to identify and destroy the virus’s genome. This method has simply been adapted by scientists to cut and paste specific strands of DNA into different organisms.

Like all things, of course, genetically modified organisms have some problems. Chemical pesticides that GMO crops are designed to withstand can harm non-GMO crops in neighboring fields that lack those immunities, and prior to 2013 it was possible to patent sequences of DNA, including ones in your body.

But many of these problems are overstated. Despite concerns about possible health risks, with some claiming they are toxic to every organ in the body, the evidence shows that these concerns are unfounded. An extensive analysis by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that GMOs are as safe to eat as their non-GMO counterparts, and other studies back this up.

On the other side are the considerable benefits from GMOs. Genetic modification increases crop yields, for instance, an impressive benefit on its own that pays many other dividends. It means that less land is needed to produce the same amount of food, which means more space for people and wildlife. Malnourished people in the developing world can get critical vitamins and minerals from engineered crops. Farmers can face less stress from the fear of crop failure and, when their crops are engineered to resist insect predators on their own, farmers can use less pesticide and reduce their risk of pesticide poisoning.

Faster-growing GMO fish reared on farms can reduce pressures on wild populations at risk of collapse. Mosquito populations that spread dengue fever and the Zika virus can be controlled through the release of genetically modified sterile mosquitos. And a genetically modified pig heart is pumping blood through a man’s body as you read this.

Everything has pros and cons. But the pros of GMOs overwhelmingly outweigh the cons.