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The article is published in Everyman's Science magazine by Indian Science Congress Association (Aug-Sept 2018 issue)


Genetic engineering is a very useful technique as per the agricultural or animal breeding aspects. We can modify the genes of an organism to improve or change its properties. This modification sometime undesirably spreads into the neighboring species via pollination or cross breeding which might either improve or deteriorate the properties of the organism. This unwanted deterioration of natural organisms due to genetically tailored one’s cause genetic pollution. Genetically modified species have been extensively synthesized over recent years increasing the risk of genetic pollution more than ever. It is well agreed and proven that this technique has helped in the development of many organisms with desired qualities but the ill-effects are more hazardous than those.

Many countries in the world are routing towards the righteous use of this technique as it may have devastating effects on the present organism diversity. Genetic modification may be considered as a milestone in technology but it is gradually heading towards the deterioration of the natural breeds of plants and animals.

Keywords : Genetic modification, plant diversity, transgenes.

1. Introduction

Genetic pollution is the contamination of unaltered or natural organisms with modified genes from the genetically hybridized organisms. According to environmentalists [1] and various groups, genetic pollution is an undesirable phenomenon. Earlier it was described as the gene flow from domestic, non-native sub species to wild native population but lately it has been termed as the flow of genes from genetically engineered species to non-GE species. There are many terms given to this change like genetic deterioration, genetic aggression, genetic mixing, but none has been collectively agreed upon. Hence, the definition of genetic pollution remains a dispute as far as now.

The first genetically modified plant was an antibiotic tobacco plant which was introduced as the first GMO in 1983. The history of genetic pollution goes back to 1854 when an Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel discovered the Theory of Inheritance through experiments involving breeding of pea plant. Mendel was able to explain the very basic form of inheritance and assumed that some heritable material is present in the pea plant which is able to transmit its traits to the offspring plant. About a century later, in 1962, Francis Crick and James Watson [2] won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for deciphering the structure of DNA which is till date the basis of inheritance.

2. Genetic modification

The DNA molecule consists of two chains that twist around each other forming an anti-parallel double helix structure. The discovery of DNA was due to the idea of its sequence which carries all the genetic information of any organism. Some nitrogenous bases called pyrimidines and purines are arranged in a specific manner in the DNA molecule itself in order to create a code which is transferred into a protein in the cell as a part of the creed of central biology. DNA is the basic unit of inheritance among the other larger units. One of those large units is gene which has the code for some product protein.

The main idea behind Genetic Modification is to find such genes within an organism which can be modified and then transmitted into target organism to finally get the desired characteristic bearing species. It can be seen as an argument with the fundamental facts of nature which has its ill effects at very microscopic level summing up to genetically derived pollution.

Genetic engineering has made us possible to modify plants and other organisms[3,4].In order to acquire desirable properties, new genes from any other species can be inserted into the subject species. These inserted genes are known as Transgenes [5].In few cases, the gene of the subject specie is taken out in order to compare the nature and properties of the organism. Various changes are made genetically to study the changes in behavior and characteristics. This change that takes place due to genetic modification has been termed as “undesirable” by organizations such as Greenpeace [6] and TRAFFIC [7].

Table 1: Genetically engineered crops in this table include the crops that have insect-resistant traits or crops that have herbicide tolerance traits, or both. [8]

3. Genetic pollution in plants and animals

Gene flow can take place undesirably from genetically tailored organism to non-genetically modified one. This flow of genes may occur via cross pollination, water pollination or animal pollination. Seeds of the genetically modified organism may reach the non-modified organisms through animals, water or cross-pollination. Genetic pollution can also occur through the mating of wild and modified organisms, producing hybrids. This undesired mixing might cause genetic pollution by interfering with the genetics of the other organisms.

The process of gene flow for animals is about same as plants although it is not very common as the genetic pollution in plants. The gene flow from one animal to other can cause genetic pollution by altering certain properties of the animal. Genetic pollution in animals is a very serious issue as it can pose harmful effect on that particular breed of organisms and sometimes can make them extinct.

4. How does genetic modification cause pollution?

· GMOs or Genetically modified organisms can cross pollinate and it becomes extremely impossible to clean the whole genetic pool.

A survey [9] in US from 1996 to 2008 showed that a larger amount of herbicides and pesticides were required to use on the GMOs as compared to the non-GM plants. This may reduce the value of nutrients and increase the risk of “superweeds” which are resistant of herbicides.

Genetically Modified crops and the extensive use of herbicides can harm birds, marine ecosystems, insects, amphibians and soil organisms. They reduce pollute water resources, bio-diversity and are unsustainable. For example, GM crops are eliminating habitat for monarch butterflies, whose populations are down 50% in the US[10].

· Contrary to the claim, the yield of the GMOs is less as compared to the natural products.

5. How to check the ill effects of genetic pollution?

· While purchasing food products one should always look for genetically engineered free products in order to resist from consuming polluted food.

· New age modification should be developed which is not transferable or contaminable to other crops or animals.

· Extensive use of herbicides and pesticides will deteriorate the quality of both natural and modified crops which should be strictly avoided.

· There should be a limit or restriction over the percent of modification done in the genes. The modification must only be done to improve certain properties lacking in the organism and not to completely modify it.

6. Few facts

· US, Brazil, Argentina, India and Canada are the countries producing 90% of genetically modified food products[11].

· 93% or more Soybean produced in US is bioengineered [12].

· Herbicide tolerant genetically engineered crops have created weed resistance causing the pesticide use to increase by 70 million pounds within the period of 1996 to 2003.

· Scientists from Taiwan have created a glow-in-the-dark pig in 2006 by inserting the genes of jellyfish in the pig’s embryo.

7. Conclusion

Genetic modification of plants and animals has been a boon in many ways but since everything has its advantages and disadvantages; genetic pollution became the ill effect of GMOs. Many new species have been derived by gene altering to improve the weak characteristics of organisms. The undesired cross-pollination in plants and cross-breeding in animals has brought about some unwanted changes in field of genetic modification which is a challenge for the scientists. The contaminated species cannot be brought back to their natural self hence genetic pollution has become an irreversible process. There are very few steps taken collectively to stop this unfortunate situation where many of naturally occurring species are on the verge of extinction. We must proceed with caution to avoid causing unintended harm to the human health and use this technique for the betterment of the humankind.


1. A. Zaid, H.G. Hughes, E. Porceddu, F. Nicholas, Glossary of Biotechnology for Food and Agriculture - A Revised and Augmented Edition of the Glossary of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering. A FAO Research and Technology Paper ISSN 1020-0541. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. ISBN 92-5-104683-2, 2001.

2. R. Dahm, Dev. Biol., 278 (2), 274-288, 2005.

3. Barta, A., Sommergruber, K., Thompson, D., Hartmuth, K., Matzke, M., & Matzke, A., Plant Mol. Biol., 6, 347–357

4. Beyer P, Al-Babili S, Ye X, Lucca P, Schaub P, Welsch R & Potrykus I, Journ. of Nutr., 132, 506-510, 2002.

5. Bryan D. Ness, Encyclopedia of Genetics. Revised Edition. Salem Press Inc, Pasadena, California (2004).

6. Greenpeace, "Say no to genetic pollution" (n.d.)

7. When is wildlife trade a problem? hosted by, the wildlife trade monitoring network, a joint programme of WWF and IUCN - The World Conservation Union.


9. E Andrianantoandro, S Basu, D K Kariga and R Weiss, Mol. Syst. Biol. 2 (2006)

10. R G Wilson, S D Miller, P Westra, A R Kniss, P W Stahlman, G W Wicks, S D Kachman, Weed Technol. 21 (4), 900–909, 2007.

11. Kaphengst, Timo, Nadja El Benni, Clive E., Robert F., Sophie H., Stephen M., Nataliya S. 2011. Assessment of the Economic Performance of GM Crops Worldwide ENV.B.3/ETU/2009/0010. Report to the European Commission, March. Ecologic Institute, Berlin, 2009.

12. Fernandez-Cornejo, Jorge, Seth W., Mike L., Lorraine M. Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States, ERR-162 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, February 2014.

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