Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants, animals or bacteria to which new DNA, often composed from different sources, has been added artificially. An overarching ethical question is whether humans have the right to manipulate and modify other organisms in this manner, or whether it is “playing God.” In modern biological and biomedical research, the use of GMOs is acknowledged to be an invaluable tool for generating new knowledge. However, even if one has no normative objections to genetic engineering, research ethics questions arise: Do we know enough about what we are doing when we introduce new DNA? Is safety guaranteed? Does the research have an ethically acceptable purpose?


Since the 1970s, science has developed methods of characterising DNA and identifying genes from numerous different organisms and their function. Recombinant DNA technology, which combines DNA in new ways and introduces it into bacteria, plants and animals, is used in research to study the function of genes and proteins. Applied research aims rather at the development of new products, such as bacteria that produce enzymes or drugs, plants that give higher yields, or transgenic (genetically modified) animals that can perhaps be used for organ transplantation in the future.


When recombinant DNA was discovered in the early 1970s, a one-year moratorium was initiated by key American researchers to assess the risk associated with the technology, and to develop guidelines for its safe use. Today, gene technology is regulated by law in all industrialised countries. The regulations specify how the research should be conducted and how laboratories should be equipped and safeguarded, according to the category of risk of the organisms and genes that scientists are working on. The legislation distinguishes between contained use and deliberate release. Contained use means that when working with genetically modified organisms, physical means of confinement are used to limit the organisms' contact with humans and the environment. The level of containment is considered based on an assessment of the risk to health and the environment if the GMO is released. Normal molecular biological research requires a low level of security, while work with pathogenic organisms or transgenic plants requires a higher degree of containment.

The risk associated with GMOs can be discussed based on three levels of knowledge: a) known areas of uncertainty; b) known risks, and c) unknown uncertainty and risk factors. The first two known points have a scientific basis (Gillund et al., 2008). An example of a known area of uncertainty is that when introducing new DNA into plants it is not possible to know in advance where this DNA will establish itself in the plant, or whether it will be possible for the introduced gene to effectively be switched on and be functional (but it is possible to discover this experimentally). An example of a known risk is the calculated risk of insects becoming resistant to insecticides, given that the insects feed on genetically modified plants that produce insecticide. Unknown factors are precisely that, but an indication that these exist could be based on the frequency of unexpected and unforeseen "errors" in GMOs. An example of a completely unexpected result is provided by the genetically modified petunia plants that were sown on open ground at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Cologne in summer 1991. The plants had been given a gene that produced red flowers. Quite unexpectedly, a large number of plants grew white flowers (Finnegan and McElroy, 1994). Research later revealed that the gene for the colour red was still present in these plants, but could no longer be switched on. This was attributed to a modification of the DNA of the introduced gene, and this discovery led to the development of a whole new field of research, namely the exploration of how modification and packaging of DNA in the cell nucleus can prevent the switching on of genes.

Ethical perspectives

There are those who believe it is wrong in principle to create GMOs — we should not "meddle with God's creation". Others are of the opinion that genetic engineering of organisms is not essentially different from naturally occurring gene transfer between organisms in nature, or the plant and domestic animal breeding that humans have engaged in throughout history. Since the discoveries of the laws governing the inheritance of biological features (Mendelian genetics), and particularly since the discovery that the genetic material is DNA (molecular genetics), effective breeding methods have been developed that have provided better crop yields and new, hardy plant varieties. It should therefore be the end product of the breeding or genetic engineering that is considered, and not the method that is used to add new features to an organism (Miller et al., 2008). A third viewpoint is that the uncertainty or potential risks of genetic engineering must be weighed against the usefulness of the genetically modified organism (Hug, 2008). This may require the use of the precautionary principle: In so far as it is scientifically probable, but uncertain, that GMOs can lead to negative consequences, the doubt should weigh in favour of the environment and humans (Bergmans et al., 2008). (See also Biotechnology and gene technology and Embryo, stem cell and foetus.)


What responsibility do researchers working on the development of GMOs for commercial use have for assessing risk, purpose and sustainability? The most important potential areas of application for genetically modified organisms are in agriculture, with the aim of increasing harvests (for example by increasing resistance to pests and weeds) and improving foodstuffs (shelf life, nutritional value), and in the biotechnological production of various compounds, such as vaccines and enzymes. Research is also conducted on developing genetically modified animals for so-called xenotransplantation, i.e. the transferring of tissue or organs from animals. However, there is little research activity in this area, and in 2008 Norway decided to make permanent a temporary ban on xenotransplantation (Proposition to the Odelsting no. 66 (2007-2008)).

Each area in which GMOs are used requires a specific assessment of safety for health and the environment, and most countries have introduced legislation and regulations that ensure this. But does our responsibility with regard to the use of GMOs go beyond safety considerations? The purpose of the Norwegian Gene Technology Act is to "ensure that the production and use of genetically modified organisms and the production of cloned animals take place in an ethically justifiable and socially acceptable manner, in accordance with the principle of sustainable development and without adverse effects on health and the environment" (see section 1 of the Gene Technology Act). Most other countries place exclusive emphasis on the consequences for health and the environment. The Norwegian Act is different in that it emphasises "benefit to society" and "sustainable development". This means that in the opinion of the Norwegian Parliament, we have an ethical duty to use this technology in such a way as to take account of long-term, global considerations for humans and the environment. This must be viewed in conjunction with the fact that GMOs for commercial use are to a great extent developed and controlled by large multinational companies that are criticised by environmental and anti-globalisation movements for focusing exclusively on profit, and that this has negative consequences on food production and the manufacture of medicines, especially in developing countries (see for example (Shiva, 2004)). Thus the use of GMOs is not simply a matter for ethical reflection, but is also part of a political battle and societal debate in which researchers also have a responsibility to participate.

This article has been translated from Norwegian by Jennifer Follestad, Akasie språktjenester AS.