Penn biologist to discuss the science—and politics—behind GMOs

During the 1980s, Andrew Binns, now a professor in the School of Arts & SciencesDepartment of Biology and interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, helped lay the scientific groundwork that enabled the creation of genetically engineered plants. Intended to efficiently create crops with beneficial traits, such as disease resistance, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have become the subject of debate.

In a talk this Sunday, Jan. 22, at Morris Arboretum, Binns will provide the audience with a brief background in the science of genetically modified plants, and will delve into the economic and political discussions that have unfolded about their use.

Early in his career, Binns became involved in research on a bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which infects plants by inserting its own DNA into a plant’s genome. He and colleagues discovered how to disarm the bacteria and exploit its machinery to introduce select genes into plants.

“I came at it from the basic science end, how we could manipulate this process to explore the function of different plant genes,” says Binns, “but it was obvious that this method would provide great opportunity for the agricultural community to more quickly and more precisely incorporate desired traits into their crops.” 

Binns notes that humans have been manipulating plant genomes for tens of thousands of years through what is known as “conventional” breeding. A drawback to this approach is that cross-breeding can introduce unwanted traits alongside the desired ones.

Genetic engineering, Binns says, is simply a different process for achieving the same effect more precisely. And while people have spent considerable energy vilifying the process, he says it would be more valuable to focus on the safety of the product.

“There are lots of methods in the world, lots of technologies,” Binns says. “We use some to build our cell phones, and some of these might also be used to build nuclear warheads. It’s really the product, not the methodology, that should be examined in detail and regulated in order to keep us safe.”

In his talk, Binns hopes to provide his audience with a more nuanced, science-backed view of GMOs.

“I’d like to help people not only understand the basic science behind GMOs, but also know how to evaluate the information they find out there,” Binns says. “Are these products safe? Are they affecting the environment? Do they lead to good agricultural practices? All of these are good questions to ask, and we need good science to answer them.”

Find out more about the lecture, titled “GMOs: The Science, the Hope, and the Real World,” and register to attend at the Morris Arboretum website. The cost is $15 for Morris Arboretum members and $20 for non-members.