Genetically Modified Potatoes

Hey Everyone! Welcome back to my healthy living blog! Today’s blog will be about a common concern across the globe, genetically modified foods (GM). Genetically modified foods were first introduced in North America in 1994 and in Europe in 1996, with the launch of the genetically modified tomato. Since then GM technology has become common in today’s society with pest-resistant cotton, sugar cane with increased sugar content, sweet peppers resistant to viruses, rice with high vitamin A levels (golden rice), herbicide resistant soybeans and the list goes on. Along with the health concerns, ethical issues, pros and cons of genetically modified foods, today I will be focusing on a recent GM product, the potato.
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 After thirteen years of research, in March 2010, the European Union approved the newest genetically modified potato called the Amflora. I will discuss this type of potato a little later in my blog, but first I will tell you about the history of the GM potato. Before the arrival of the Amflora potato, pest-resistant potatoes existed, however were later removed from the North American market. A biotechnology company by the name of Monsanto introduced a pest-resistant potato in the year 1996. These potatoes are commonly known as New Leaf or Natural Mark potatoes. These potatoes were designed to resist the Colorado potato beetle and the potato virus Y (PVY). These potatoes contained two isolated genes from bacteria and were used to create proteins. The first gene is known as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and the second gene is a “biological marker”(Health Canada 2000) used to identify the GM potato. Now you may be sitting there thinking, “How are the genes transferred to the plant?” Before the gene can be transferred, it first must be isolated and then it is ready for gene transfer. The first step in transferring the gene is delivering it to the nucleus and the second step is cell growth. There are two common methods used in gene transfer mentioned in the book Pandora’s Picnic Basket (2000). The first method is the “gene gun” or the “shotgun” method. The gene is combined with microscopic gold or tungsten pellets and placed on a “support” and is then shot into the plant using helium. Although, the cell becomes damaged during this process, the cell does not die. The second method uses  Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which is a “naturally occurring agent” in soil. When a plant becomes damaged, Agrobacterium tumefaciens attaches to the plant and through chemical reactions T-DNA (transfer DNA) is combined with the plant's DNA.

potatobeetle2.JPG photo - Janet Forjan-Freedman photos at (n.d.). Retrieved February 21, 2011, from

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As previously mentioned, the pest-resistant potato was discontinued in the year 2001 by Monsanto. Why? The New Leaf potatoes showed little to no economic advantages. Also companies like McDonald’s, Wendy’s and the company that makes Lays chips, Fritolay, stopped purchasing potatoes that were genetically modified because consumers were concerned about health issues. As well, McCain, the company that makes McCain french fries stopped purchasing GM potatoes and other companies followed. As a result, Monsanto stopped producing the GM potato. Although the Bt potato did have its disadvantage, it also had its advantages. One advantage is that it protected the potato from potato beetles and the PVY virus. As well, it ensured quality potatoes and farmers saved money on insecticide. Furthermore, insecticides and pesticide chemicals affected the farmers’ health. One drawback of the potato was pests became resistant to insecticides and the Bt potato as well. Since discontinued, North America no longer grows genetically modified potatoes. 

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Now that we know the past of the GM potato, we can now discuss the present, the Amflora potato. The Amflora potato was designed thirteen years ago by a German company BASF. Before discussing what an Amflora potato is, we must understand that potatoes contain starch. The starch of potatoes contains two different components in different proportions. Eighty percent of the potato’s starch contains amylopectin, which is soluble in water and makes the starch sticky. This component of the starch is perfect for use in chemical industries, producing food, paper, glue, lubricant etc. The second component of the starch is Amylose, which is used in films and foils. The starch in traditional potatoes is not "ideal"(GMO Compass 2008) for the use in chemical industries, therefore amylopectin and amylose must be separated.  Although it can be done, separating the two components is an expensive procedure and bad for the environment since it wastes energy, water and chemicals. SOLUTION: Create a potato that contains ONLY amylopectin. Since breeding methods failed, genetic engineers used the “antisense technique” (GMO Compass2008) to separate the two components. A molecule called messenger RNA (mRNA) is used to help express genetic information of genes. When the mRNA travels to the ribosomes, proteins are created and the genes are expressed. The potato is modified by doing the opposite, using antisense genes. When antisense genes are present, the mRNA creates a “mirror image”(GMO Compass 2008) of the gene and two mRNAs attach to each other and can no longer perform their function. Therefore, proteins are not able to be synthesized; the gene is “blocked” (GMO compass 2008) from producing amylose.

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The Amflora potato is currently being used for industrial use only. The advantages of having an Amflora potato is it is cheaper to produce and is environmentally friendlier. According to BASF, paper is made more glossier, yarn is stronger, glue lasts longer and concrete sticks better, products overall are better! BASF would also like to use waste of the potato for animal feed and bio-fuel. This has alarmed Europeans, because if an animal eats the GM potato skins, it may modify the animal. Not only will this have an affect on the animal’s health, but if we consume the animal it may affect our health as well. An enzyme produced by the Amflora gene causes antibiotic resistance to antibiotics and it will be difficult to fight disease. As well, in North America genetically modified food does not need to be labelled, but in Europe genetically modified food is rare and must be labelled. However, these animals consuming the genetically modified potato skins will not be labelled as genetically modified. Not only is this a health issue, but this is also an ethical issue, because people have the right to know if the meat they are consuming had contact with genetically modified food.
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Now that we have discussed the past and the present of the GM potato what will the future have in store for the GM potato. Researchers at University of Victoria, used frog genes to resist pathogens such as Phytophthora infestans. South American frogs emit a chemical in their skin to fight off bacteria and other pathogens. An effective chemical is called B1 (found in the skin of tree frogs), called Phyllomedusa bicolour. The team of researchers showed that by inserting a “synthetic” (Wagdy Sawahel 2005) of this gene into the potato, the plant was able to resist disease-causing fungi and bacteria responsible for dry rot, late blight, and pink rot. This potato has many benefits and is ethical. Late blight is responsible for the 1846 potato famine in Europe and causes significant crop loss each year. This potato could help farmers in developing countries. With resistance to pathogens, farmers will spend less money on chemicals and increase potato production. Researchers at Victoria University say that the potato is safe to eat, but Professor Eric Messens (Wagdy Sawahel 2005) says dermaseptin B1 should be tested to see if it is toxic to people and animals, and does the chemical get broken down in the body and I agree with him! It is important that the product is tested for long-term and short-term health affects.