Team:MiamiU OH/Human Practices

iGEM 2021 | Miami University

Human Practices

Avery Imes presenting at the Knolls.Avery Imes presenting at the Knolls The best way we can show respect to our community is to listen to them. GMOs are a controversial topic, and we do not want to ignore the fears of our community members. The first genetically engineered product became available for sale in 1994 (1). This means that there are generations of people alive today who have lived most of their lives without the widespread presence of GMOs in their food supply. That is why we decided to reach out to the older adults in our community, and find out their thoughts on GMOs. We contacted our local older adult care home, the Knolls of Oxford, and gave a presentation to a group of residents on the creation of GMOs. At the end of the presentation we held a question and answer session that progressed into a larger conversation on the roles of GMOs in our community. We took note of the questions they asked, and curated them into a pamphlet that we distributed back to the Knolls. While we answered questions in-person, we also wanted to provide a tangible resource that the residents could reference back to and share with others.

The conversation was bolstered by the interdisciplinary backgrounds and perspectives of our attendees, including the insights from a zoologist, a philosopher, and a retired nurse. After our afternoon at the Knolls, our team had a completely new perspective on how our community views GMOs. It reinforced our duty to be responsible, ethical, and informed scientists who are able to communicate our studies with those outside of our field.

The PDF of our presentation is also available at the following download link and has been shared as an accessible resource with the Knolls community.

The PDF of our pamphlet is available at the following download link.

The Conversation

The discussion highlighted two key areas of interest: the technical process of creating a GMO and their ethical implementation.

Many questions were asked on the process of isolating genes within DNA. How are genes identified? What does DNA sequencing tell us and how do we know this information is correct? How do scientists make sure that modifying one gene does not affect the other genes in an organism?

Avery Imes presenting at the Knolls.Another image of Avery Imes presenting at the Knolls The residents of the Knolls were genuinely interested in the step-by-step process of genetic engineering at the molecular level. Originally we were worried that this aspect of our presentation would be too technical to hold the interest of our group. However, we learned that we can talk about the benefits of GMOs all we want, but people will still remain skeptical about the science if they don’t understand how it works. The residents knew that parts of one organism’s DNA could be copied and pasted into another organism’s DNA, but they wanted to know exactly how that happens.

Their questions explored both the process of genetic engineering and the current scientific understanding of it. We had honest conversations about what science can and can not do. One resident asked about using genetic engineering to customize children. This prompted a lively discussion about the ethics of cloning and genetic modification of human embryos and fetuses. Through this exchange, we emphasized that scientists are still unraveling the details of human genetics and their possible modifications. For example, the exact genes that determine eye color are still unknown.

The residents were also concerned about how companies could abuse GMOs. We live in an agricultural area, so the residents were already familiar with the way GMOs have been used by companies like Monsanto to increase corporate profits at the expense of local farmers. We specifically discussed the monopolization of seeds. Monsanto sells 90% of genetically modified seeds around the world and is the dominant supplier of seeds in many agricultural areas. Monsanto specifically creates hybridized seeds within their GMO crops that make the plant infertile. This means that farmers can not harvest seeds from their crops to use during the next planting season. While these GMO seeds promise higher crop yields, they also ensure maximum profit for the company by ensuring farmers must buy new seeds every year (2).

It is our responsibility to acknowledge the harm that these practices have had on our community. We understand that GMO skepticism comes from real experiences. However, we also believe this abuse is not a problem with the science of GMOs, but with how it is exploited with unfair corporate practices. Therefore, the goal of our educational efforts was to present a holistic view of GMOs, both the abuses and the benefits.

Our primary example of beneficial GMO technology was Golden Rice. Using the Golden Rice Case Study, we talked about the prevalence of vitamin A deficiencies in undernourished countries where the primary food staple is rice. Golden rice is a genetically modified rice strain that is able to produce vitamin A precursors due to the addition of plant synthase and bacterial desaturate genes, providing a viable food source to alleviate vitamin A deficiencies in these regions (3). Through our presentation and discussion, we were able to introduce the residents to another side of GMO research that works towards humanitarian causes. This discussion was essential to introduce the residents to our own project, which has the goal to create genetically modified crops to reduce food insecurity.

Reflection, Responsibility, and Responsiveness

A top down view of a field of barley.Photo by kaigraphick from Pixabay When we began this project, our lens was narrow. Genetic engineering in cyanobacteria to improve crop yields was the goal of this project and the creation of the technology took center stage. We did not give adequate reflection on the implications of this technology outside of the lab until the project had progressed further. At first glance, it looks like an objectively positive outcome to improve crop yield without increasing the land degradation caused by agriculture. However, the effects of this technology are not limited to our lab and our idealized vision of its implementation. Our technology will enter a world where it will have complex and overlapping ecological, economic, and sociocultural implications.

Increasing production is not the final answer to solving food insecurity. For example, there is an overproduction of food in the U.S. agricultural sector. When food prices dip too low, it is more economically practical for farmers to let that food rot in the field, rather than expend the resources to harvest and ship that food (4). The wasteful effects of this overproduction are amplified by outside shocks, as was demonstrated by the millions of pounds of fresh products that farmers were forced to destroy due to a lack of demand amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. This overproduction of food coincided with an immense increase in American joblessness and the need for food assistance (5). Clearly, production was not the issue, it was distribution.

Farm equipment harvesting corn.A field of onions in Idaho waiting to be buried (6). Increasing crop yield could reduce land use while maintaining current production levels. This is the ideal implementation of our technology. However, in the context of the U.S, if our technology is used to increase crop yield without decreasing the number of crops grown, that will contribute to the problem of overproduction. Flooding the market with more goods decreases the value of those goods. This reality places an obvious economic burden on farmers.

However, we envision our technology to be most effective in areas of low production with a lack of land for agricultural use. As outlined in our Proposed Implementation page, we have identified regions in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia to benefit most from our technology. With this goal in mind, our project would be enhanced with ethnographic research into these targeted communities and their agricultural practices so that our technology can be implemented where it will be the most effective. Development intervention technologies need to have an understanding of the communities that they are trying to aid.

Reflection throughout our project raised concerns about the possibility of our technology to do harm, especially after our conversation with our community members about the abuse of GMOs in the agricultural industry. For this iGEM cycle, our main goal was to achieve our proof of concept, with the hope that it will be able to be used for further work in crop plants. In addition, we wanted to provide communities with more accessible understandings of GMOs, as well as gain perspective on the primary concerns of our own community.

We only have direct control on the research on our technology, not its subsequent implementation. Through our outreach, we were reminded that the research, however, is only as powerful as its implementation. Therefore, for future steps, we’d like to assess how scientists, ethnographic researchers, politicians, and corporations can work together to ensure the most efficient and ethical application of promising scientific advances.


1. Orth JD, Thiele I, Palsson BØ. 2010. What is flux balance analysis? Nat Biotechnol 28:245–248. (

2. The Privatisation of Seeds. RESET. (

3. The Golden Rice Project. Golden Rice Humanitarian Board. (

4. Hitah C. Food Loss at the Farm Level. US Department of Agriculture. (

5. Yaffe-Bellany D, Corkery M. 2020. Dumped Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables: Food Waste of the Pandemic. The New York Times. (

6. Yaffe-Bellany, David, and Michael Corkery. “Dumped Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables: Food Waste of the Pandemic.” The New York Times, April 11, 2020, sec. Business. (

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