Larry Gilbertson

Let’s Set the Record Straight: GMOs Are Not Created with a Syringe

Last month an interesting Newsweek article came across my social media feed. The title was “GM Food: Extreme Opponents Know the Least, But Think They Know the Most.” As a guy who has been making GM (genetically modified) crops for more than twenty years, that certainly got my attention. But what really got my attention was the photo that accompanied the article: a tomato with a syringe stuck in it.

Now, this image is nothing new. The tomato-syringe meme has been around for decades, but it really bugs me because it reinforces an image of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) that is all wrong. Maybe I can help set the record straight.

The process by which we make transgenic, aka GM, plants is called plant transformation. It happens every day in my lab and others at the Crop Science division of Bayer. I’ve seen it happen in many ways, in many crops, every single step of the way, from beginning to end.

You know what I’ve never seen during any of this process? A syringe with a needle. Not once. Nevertheless, if you do a Google image search for “GMO,” you’ll see many pictures of tomatoes with syringes stuck in them.

larry gilbertson
larry gilbertson

Larry Gilbertson
Applied Genome Modification Lead

tomato graphic
tomato graphic

Scientists have never used a syringe with a needle to make a GM crop, so why would anyone create such an image? To make GMOs seem scary. It fits the narrative that GMOs are somehow bad and can be used to help sell more non-GMO labeled food. Never mind the fact that there are currently no commercially available GM tomatoes, which means you couldn’t buy one even if you tried.

The syringe meme works because a large number of people are afraid of needles. The only thing scarier to most people than needles is public speaking, so I’m surprised somebody didn’t think of showing a tomato onstage behind a podium, getting ready to speak. Yikes!

We get a lot of visitors at the Crop Science Division of Bayer, and sometimes I’m asked to demonstrate the process of plant transformation (making a GMO). I love doing that, because I love the science, and the science is amazing! After doing it for so long I kind of take it for granted, but every time I talk about it with visitors I’m reminded of how remarkable it is. I’m kind of a DNA nerd, so I love to talk about all the details, but there are really just three basic steps:
gmo steps
gmo steps

1. Deliver the DNA

We deliver the DNA with a natural soil bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which isn’t any different from what it does in nature. It delivers DNA to plants. That sweet potato you had over the holidays? It has a piece of Agrobacterium DNA that was delivered to it about 8,000 years ago.

2. Select the cells

We’ll then nurture the cells that have taken up the DNA, until we have enough cells for the next step.

3. Regenerate the plants

Regeneration is done with plant hormones. Did you know that plants have hormones, just like people? It’s true!

These are images of what the plant transformation really looks like. Plant cells and young plants are carefully nurtured in petri dishes and other containers. They basically look exactly like our non-GM plants. The only difference is they contain specific genes for one or more added traits that will help make these plants more productive and able to overcome various challenges while they grow—which is good for farmers, and good for you and me. Sadly, you’ll never see these images in anti-GMO memes because they’re just not scary.

Let’s spread the truth about GMOs and how they’re created—not with a syringe full of who-knows-what but a petri dishes with natural occurring bacterium.

A version of this article was originally published on LinkedIn.

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All Comments

April 26, 2019 - 05:48 PM

Good product

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Gord Bestwick
April 10, 2019 - 08:55 PM

Love it!

Thanks so much for writing this article. I'm a strong proponent of GM foods, and it saddens me to think that people are against a technology they know so little about.

I actually think that if genetic technology could be applied more frequently to "end consumer problems", people would start to accept them. Many of the problems that are solved are nebulous and abstracted away from the consumer.

The Arctic apple is a good example of solving an end consumer problem. If consumers can be presented with something that makes their lives directly better/easier, we'd have more acceptance!

Thanks again!

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Bhanu dangi
April 10, 2019 - 07:40 AM

I'm not a DNA nerd as our Bayer Scientist but being an agricultural student and looking towards future food sustainability, I believe People must be taught property about GMOs because every invention's success depends on how people accept those things and the syringe things probably came from those who didn't know how it is made.

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