By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Monarch butterfly is a genetically modified organism
Don GardnerColor
Don Gardner is a UGA Extension agent who lives in Ellabell. - photo by File photo

I have discussed here the difficulty in defining what is a GMO — a genetically modified organism — and what is not. In the broadest sense, every plant species used by humans has been genetically modified by human selection.

We pick and propagate the best plants, animals, bacteria and fungi. Just look at yeast. There are thousands of strains of yeast developed just for beer production. Those are just the ones available for home brewers. The commercial companies have their own carefully guarded strains.

What about bread? What about wine? What about cheese? With cheese it’s all about the yeast or bacteria. How many breeds of cattle are there? Dogs? How many varieties of camellias are there?

Back in my previous life in Savannah, we brought in a national expert to try to identify the varieties of azaleas in Savannah’s squares. He declared the effort futile as there were thousands of cultivars extant, and ours were so old that even if they could be identified, they were not in cultivation any longer.

It is not just humans doing the selecting. Nature selects constantly. The fire environment of the Southeast selected for plants that could endure fire. I give you the longleaf pine. I have pointed out that Agrobacterium tumefaciens, the bacterium involved in crown gall, is a natural GMO vector. It infects more than 600 plant species that belong to 93 families of plants. At infection, it injects into the host plant DNA that takes over the cell and make it produce nitrogen compounds that are available only to the bacterium and not the plant. So a bacterium infects a higher plant and injects a DNA strand that makes the plant do what benefits the bacterium.

About 16 years ago a preliminary report — “preliminary” is the operative word — out of Cornell University suggested that pollen from GMO corn was toxic to monarch caterpillars. The GMO activists and their willing accomplices in the press stoked the preliminary report into a frenzy. Federal money was allocated, and the Agricultural Research Service coordinated researchers to examine the issue, including trying to replicate results. The results showed conclusively that there was no significant risk to monarch caterpillars from GMO (transgenic Bt) corn. The research results came out at the same time as the 9/11 attacks and received little attention. That did not stop opponents of GMO crops from using the monarch butterfly as a symbol to attack agriculture.

Now, research shows that the monarch butterfly itself is a GMO. Monarch caterpillars are naturally parasitized by a small wasp. A September article by Janet Fang at picks up the story:

“Along with their eggs, parasitic wasps are injecting DNA into silkworms and the caterpillars of monarch butterflies — making them naturally occurring genetically modified organisms, according to a new PLOS Genetics study published this week.

“Symbiotic viruses called bracoviruses are associated with tens of thousands parasitic wasp species that develop within the body of butterfly and moth hosts. Viral particles produced in wasp ovaries are injected into caterpillars along with the wasp eggs. Once there, the viral DNA integrates into the DNA of the host cell. This induces changes in the caterpillar’s immune defenses that allow the developing wasp larvae to colonize and consume it.

To investigate this relationship further, a team led by Salvador Herrero of the University of Valencia and Jean-Michel Drezen of the University of Tours analyzed DNA from multiple moth and butterfly species using existing databases. The researchers identified bracovirus DNA sequences in the genomes of the monarch (Danaus plexippus), silkworm (Bombyx mori), beet armyworm (Spodoptera exigua), and fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda). ...

“Furthermore, these integrated genes aren’t just remnants, they’re active. The acquired genes have since become domesticated, and they seem to protect butterflies and moths against other pathogenic viruses.”

Hmmmmm. It seems transgenic modification is a lot more common in nature than some would want you to believe.

Sign up for our E-Newsletters