Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

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While earlier sections of the document have been silent on the subject of GMOs, the laboratory use of genetic modification is an important tool in microbiological research. Furthermore, the generation of genetically modified products under appropriate safety protocols is increasing in many parts of the world and could be beneficial to the UK. The following are examples.

  • Genetically modified microbes can be used as vaccines to protect against infectious diseases of animals, including man. Pathogens that have been weakened by alteration of their genetic material, or microbes that do not cause disease, can be engineered to produce foreign antigens to stimulate host defences without causing harm. Many such vaccines have now been licensed or approved, and more are being developed. For example, a recombinant vaccinia virus has been used in Europe to vaccinate foxes against rabies, and a herpesvirus of turkey (HVT), used as a vaccine to protect chickens against Marek’s disease, has been engineered to produce antigens from Newcastle disease (ND) virus and infectious laryngotracheitis (ILT) virus and is being used to protect poultry against all three agents in a single dose. This technology can now be applied to develop genetically modified microbes that induce greater protection, longer-lasting immunity, or which are more stable or cross-reactive.
  • Genetically modified microbes can be harnessed as sources of useful molecules, including enzymes to aid energy retention from animal diets and insecticidal toxins to control crop pests and vectors of animal disease. Knowledge of pathogen biology can also be used to engineer animals or crops that resist disease. For example, transgenic chickens were recently described that fail to transmit avian influenza owing to expression of decoy RNAs that sequester viral proteins [27], and a similar strategy can be used in crops to instil resistance to plant viruses [28].

The Microbiology Society sees significant potential in the use of biotechnology research to mitigate food insecurity and the use of GMOs as just one of the many tools in the researcher’s toolbox that, with rigorous legislative and ethical review, may yield products or processes to improve food security. The Society will continue to inform the debate about the use of such technology.