GMO (genetically modified organisms) foods and the science behind them is a matter of concern to some people. But, it appears to be a technology that is here to stay. For example, many modern pharmaceuticals such as insulin are produced by genetically modified bacteria. (1)
Glyphosate, better known as RoundUp is a popular herbicide used primarily in agriculture to control the growth of weeds but in fact will kill most plants. Important food crops such as canola, soybeans and corn have been genetically modified to survive glyphosate and are known collectively as RoundUp Ready.
An overview of this chemical and the GMO technology it entails is explored.
Herbicide vs Pesticide
Glyphosate was first synthesized in the 1950’s and was subsequently found to be a potent herbicide by a Monsanto scientist in the 1970’s(2) . It is important to note that herbicide and pesticide are not synonymous. A pesticide is a generic term for a chemical that can be used to eliminate undesirable plants, animals, fungi, etc. A herbicide refers specifically to a chemical which targets plants. To quote one reference verbatim(3):
RoundUp is considered a ‘friendly’ herbicide to the environment because:
- It is virtually nontoxic to mammals, birds, fish, and insects
- It exhibits essentially no pre-emergence activity. It won’t prevent plants in your garden from germinating
- It exhibits essentially no residual soil activity even when applied at high rates. Roundup binds tightly to soil particles and doesn’t move on or in the soil to affect untreated plants nearby
- It breaks down quickly into natural materials such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen
- It does not penetrate the woody stems of trees, shrubs, or grapevines
- Finally, the most important feature, once inside the plant, glyphosate inhibits a key enzyme found only in plants and bacteria – EPSP synthase
Glyphosate blocks plants from making the amino acids phenyalanine, tyrosine and tryptophan which in turn prevents the plant from producing proteins such as enzymes. Plants that have been engineered to be RoundUp Ready have been altered with a bacterial gene that gives the plant an alternative pathway to make these amino acids.
Glyphosate (RoundUp) The Molecule
You can construct a physical molecular model of this compound or any of the amino acids mentioned in the article using our 3D Molecular Model Builder.
GMO & Space Travel
The Earth’s fossil record shows it has experienced mass extinctions due to asteroids and lethal radiation believed to have been caused by exploding stars. For this reason, scientists as illustrious as Stephen Hawking have stated that the risk to humanity of staying on one planet is very risky.
So, what does GMO have to do with humans and space travel? The connection is subtle. Every month or so, astronomers announce the discovery of more “earth-like” planets. What most people may not appreciate is that these planets won’t have plant life, oceans and beautiful blue skies. It simply means they have a mass similar to Earth’s and revolve around a star like the Sun at what is considered an hospitable distance.
Current technology does not tell us much more than that about the exo-planets. We have no idea if they have a breathable atmosphere or an elemental composition even remotely similar to Earth’s. At present, there is no way to know whether any such planet could be terraformed, i.e. turned into something Earth-like. Why does this matter?
It matters because if humans ever travel to one of these planets, they will have to adapt to whatever they find since it is almost certainly a one way trip. The only way to do this is to bring a “library” of genes for virtually every organism on earth. The Earth’s collective gene pool include that for organisms that have adapted to every hostile environment. This includes from sea trenches, to ammonia or methane filled caves, to thin atmospheres & intense UV radiation on mountain tops.
Human space explorers may need to use these same genetic modification techniques to use these genes to adapt themselves, their livestock and plants to these new worlds. Brave New World indeed!