Genetic Modification: Definition, Advantages & Disadvantages

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  • 0:04 What Is Gene Modification?
  • 1:28 Advantages of Genetic…
  • 2:19 Disadvantages of…
  • 4:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Erika Steele

Erika has taught college Biology, Microbiology, and Environmental Science. She has a PhD in Science Education.

Expert Contributor
Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

Genetic modification has allowed scientists to create some pretty neat things, like apples that don't brown and fish that glow. In this lesson, learn what genetic modification is and explore some of its advantages and disadvantages.

What Is Genetic Modification?

Genetic modification involves making changes to an organism's genes to give it new traits that wouldn't occur in nature or to eliminate undesirable traits. These changes can include turning off, or silencing, a gene or inserting a foreign gene into an organism's genome, which is the complete set of genes present in an organism.

Genetic modification gives humans the power to determine the genetic make-up of any living creature, including human beings. While farmers have been selectively breeding plants and animals for thousands of years, they relied on natural selection, which meant they had to wait for a random mutation to occur to get an organism with desirable traits, such as really big cows or chickens.

Let's look at the two types of genetic modification in more detail.

Gene silencing turns off genes that are harmful or not useful from the human perspective. An example of genetic silencing is the Arctic Apple. These genetically modified apples will not turn brown after being sliced because the genes that control the enzymes responsible for browning have been turned off.

Organisms also can be genetically modified via the addition of new genes to their genome, which can impart new traits, such as frost-, drought-, or pest-resistance. GloFish are an example of such a genetically modified organism. These pets have been modified through addition of a gene that produces a neon pigment that glows in black light.

Advantages of Genetic Modification

The ability to genetically modify crops could conceivably help reduce hunger and ailments related to poor nutrition, such as blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency. For example, Golden Rice was genetically engineered to produce vitamin A and other essential vitamins.

Additionally, as mentioned above, crops have been modified to be resistant to drought, frost, and pests. Theoretically, this means that food could be grown in places that don't have land that's ideal for crops.

The technology also exists for genetic modification in humans, known as gene therapy. Although government funding for genetic modification in human embryos is not approved in the United States, gene therapy on adults and children is currently being researched. This could lead to cures for diseases where there used to be none and/or improvement in the quality of life for those with diseases.

Disadvantages of Genetic Modification

There are also many consequences that could come from genetically modifying organisms. For example, BtCorn has been genetically modified to produce a pesticide called Bt toxin, which can deter certain pests. However, one consequence of Bt toxin-producing plants is that they could lead to insects that are resistant to Bt toxin. This genetic modification also creates crops with pesticides that cannot be removed by washing, which could be harmful to human health.

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Additional Activities

Genetic Modification Examples

Genetic modification can be a controversial topic. In this research activity, students are going to research an additional example of genetic modification and present the advantages and disadvantages and then create their own judgement about whether the example is helpful or harmful. Students will present their research in an essay. Alternatives to an essay include a digital presentation or a poster as the final product.


Some examples of genetic modification that students might choose to research include genetically modified corn, soybeans, canola, or animals such as the GloFish. For these topics, students might start their research by looking for general information on what has been modified in the crops. Then, they can expand their search to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of the genetic modification.

Student Instructions

Now that you understand the general advantages and disadvantages of genetic modification, you're going to research a specific example and consider how it has helped or hurt humans and our ecosystems. Follow the steps below to get started.

  1. Start by researching different genetically modified organisms that already exist to get an idea of which organisms you can choose from. A simple Google search will provide some options.
  2. Choose a single organism to investigate and use keyword searches in Google to find information like a description of the modification, the purpose, the advantages and disadvantages. Make sure to use credible sources from the government, scientists or news outlets. Record notes from your sources and cite them.
  3. Construct an outline that introduces the genetically modified organism, address the advantages, disadvantages, and gives your final personal opinion about whether the organism has been helpful or harmful.

Criteria For Success

  • Essay includes information from at least five different sources
  • Essay includes a description of the genetically modified organism
  • Essay includes three advantages and three disadvantages
  • Essay includes students' personal opinion based on their research as to whether the organism is helpful or not
  • Essay is at least 1,000 words

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