How does genetic engineering benefit us?
Genetically modified microorganisms
No chance for free: microorganisms
Every technology harbors opportunities, but also risks. There are no opportunities for free. The accompanying safety research, especially in genetic engineering, is unparalleled. While more security is still required in this country, the restrictive handling is loosened elsewhere due to the experiences made.
"Biofermentation", the cultivation of microorganisms, is a biotechnical method with a long tradition in the food sector. Microorganisms such as yeast, mold and lactic acid bacteria are used in the production of wine, beer, bread, cheese and dairy products. These microorganisms can not only be modified using traditional breeding methods, but now also genetically modified.
New or novel risks?
If microorganisms are genetically modified, other properties of the microorganism can theoretically come to the fore in addition to the desired property. These additional properties, such as the production of an allergenic or toxic substance, are now being discussed as new risks in connection with genetic engineering. But: these theoretical risks also exist with classic breeding methods, so they are not specific to the "genetic engineering method". On the contrary: only with this method do you know what has actually been changed in the microorganism.
The traditional way
For decades, microorganisms have been genetically modified with radiation or chemical substances. After such a treatment, those microorganisms are then selected which, purely by chance, have the desired property. A desired property can e.g. be the increase in efficiency. Lactic acid and citric acid production are examples of this: the microorganisms that have been cultivated and used for production today form a larger amount of these substances than their "ancestors".
Regardless of the method used to breed the microorganisms, various side effects can occur. This probability is much lower with genetically engineered and therefore specifically modified microorganisms. In addition, you can precisely analyze the changes in the genetic make-up in these. This is not the case with conventional methods of altering the genetic make-up.
The genetic engineering way
With genetic engineering methods, the desired breeding properties can be achieved in a very targeted manner by introducing a single gene. You know what is being changed at the genetic level and you can check this genetic change accordingly: you actually gain additional security.
Before the genetically modified microorganism is used, it is carefully examined, e.g. to determine whether undesired additional products are created. The Genetic Engineering Act stipulates in detail what must be checked and for how long. Once all legal requirements have been met, the Robert Koch Institute, as the approval authority, reviews the documents. The "Central Commission for Biosafety" (ZKBS) is also involved as a testing authority. Only when the safety can be confirmed is the microorganism approved for production.
Genetic engineering offers the possibility of cultivating microorganisms with properties that previously could not be cultivated or only with an enormous expenditure of time. With a genetically engineered gene, lactic acid bacteria can e.g. produce a protein that renders viruses harmless. During the safety check, the safety is also carefully examined with regard to the possible allergy effects of the protein.
For almost 15 years, enzymes have been obtained internationally from genetically modified fungi, yeast and bacteria. Enzymes are proteins or protein substances. Therefore, like any other protein, they can cause allergies in predisposed people. This applies equally to naturally occurring and genetically engineered or conventionally produced enzymes. In the production of enzymes, safety measures ensure that the risk of allergies is minimized for those involved. E.g. the enzymes are encapsulated in order to avoid the generation of dust. The enzymes produced, which are used in the production of food, are usually not present in the end product, or at most in traces.
If substances that have not previously been marketed appear in food, there is a relatively high probability that new allergies will occur. This was also the case, for example, with the European market launch of the New Zealand kiwi. Regardless of how they are manufactured, new proteins pose an allergy risk. Most of the enzyme preparations that are now produced using genetic engineering methods have already been launched on the market.
A marketed example: chymosin
The enzyme chymosin is used to "curdle" the milk in cheese production. The enzyme is only required in very small quantities and is broken down during the cheese ripening process: Neither the rennet from the calf's stomach (with approx. 5% chymosin content) nor the chymosin from genetically modified microorganisms can be detected in the end product cheese. The cheese products already produced and consumed worldwide using chymosin from microorganisms show that concerns about allergenic potential are unfounded. In England, animal rights activists have spoken out in favor of using chymosin from microorganisms instead of rennet from calf stomachs. An English retail chain advertises Cheddar cheese with the statement: "Produced with the help of genetic engineering, therefore free from animal rennet".
Cheese is already made in many countries with chymosin, which comes from genetically modified microorganisms. It has also been approved in Germany since March 1997. The chymosin is identical to the active substance in the traditionally used calf stomach rennet. Both products are added to the cheese milk in negligible amounts. In these small amounts, either accompanying substances from the calf stomach (the chymosin content of the calf stomach extract used is approx. 5% with 95% accompanying substances) or accompanying substances from the bacteria (the chymosin content of the bacterial extract is approx. 99% with less than 1% Accompanying substances) in the cheese milk. Neither the chymosin nor any accompanying substances can be detected in the finished cheese. Accompanying substances from the bacteria would also not be new to the human organism: the microorganisms used for chymosin production are traditionally used in food production. So there is no new allergy risk.
The risks discussed in connection with genetic engineering also exist with conventional production processes. So these are not new or additional risks. A new technology must always compete with the traditional ones on the market. We now have almost fifteen years of experience with the fermentation of genetically modified microorganisms, e.g. in the production of insulin. Production security is of course guaranteed. Genetic engineering not only performs better than the previously used techniques in terms of conserving resources (e.g. saving energy in enzyme production) and reducing the burden on the environment (e.g. genetically engineered phytase in livestock feed), it also makes a significant contribution to minimizing risk. In addition, there are considerable cost advantages for food production, which can ultimately also benefit the consumer due to the competitive pressure of the suppliers. As far as the allergy factor is concerned, information about newly introduced proteins must be made available in a suitable form, regardless of the manufacturing process.
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