Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are organisms (living systems) that have altered through genetic engineering techniques. Some people like to speculate whether Pokemon were the result of a nuclear apocalypse or extensive genetic engineering and mutation.
Mutations are not necessarily bad things, and they are also unlikely to turn you into Wolverine. Mutations occur naturally all the time as our DNA replicates, but can also be induced by outside forces. Sometimes they are bad, sometimes they are good, and sometimes they do absolutely nothing.
Normally, our DNA experiences mutations during the process of DNA replication, because mistakes happen and our proof reading mechanisms don’t always realise. A common but harmless trait that resulted from mutation is orange in carrots. The mutations occurred naturally, but due to selective breeding, orange became established (1). When selectively breeding, breeders will find the best crops and breed them together. The “bad” mutations will be bred out of the organism, so a few generations of selective breeding later, we have a superior organisms. However, this can take an exponentially long time, from decades to centuries depending on how dominant the mutation is. However, identifying and inserting or inducing the causes a desirable mutation in that specific gene takes much less time and cuts out a lot of the trial and error of traditional selective breeding. The ideal genetic modification would be indistinguishable from a randomly incurred natural mutation. In a sense, it is used to “speed up” desirable mutations without the many decades of selective breeding in between.
Often when I tell people that I am a geneticist the common reaction is “Oh, you are making GMOs? So you are fusing shark genes and plant genes?”. I usually laugh and say yes, because I can’t always be bothered explaining the difference. Genetic Modification is a blanket term, and it doesn’t always require foreign DNA to be introduced to an organism.
When genetically modifying an organism, mutations can be induced by exposing the organism to a mutagen. These mutagens can be a certain radiation or particle bombardment that causes changes during DNA replication (2). These mutations can then be selectively bred and regulated so the end result is an organism with the desirable, but no detrimental, traits. Organism produced through this form of mutation are called Genetically Modified Organisms, or are referred to as Genetically Engineered. When I refer to GM or GMOs from now on, I mean species that do not contain foreign DNA, but have experienced genetic engineering.
GMO is colloquially used to describe an organism that have foreign DNA, but this is actually too broad of a term to use in science. To avoid confusion, it is better to use the term Transgenic Organism, which is technically a GMO that contains synthetic DNA or foreign DNA . For example, if I took a gene from a fish and put it in a turtle, I may succeed in making a Squirtle, and I would call it transgenic. Sometimes we do add genes from other species in real life, such as attaching the Green Florescent protein originally isolated from jellyfish with another protein. This allows the protein that results from an expressed gene to ‘glow’ in the right light, allowing the proteins location to be observed (3)
For an explaination of how transgenesis works, read about Mewtwo
So, transgenic organisms are genetically modified, but not all GMOs are transgenic. Its the same as how all Abras are psychic, but not all psychic Pokemon are Abras. From now on, when I refer to genetic modification I mean modification that did NOT result from foreign DNA being added, and transgenics will refer to mutations that DID result from the introduction of foreign DNA. So the Type: Null created by the Alolan scientists could either be a GMO or a Transgenic organism. Do we know that either of these techniques actually work?
Plants have been extensively research in terms of GM and Transgenics. Some crops have been genetically modified without the need for new DNA. A common example are potatoes that were modified to prevent bruising or browning, and to lower the amount of Asparagine, which, when cooked, can be a harmful toxin, (4). In scienctific research, it is very common to look at plants that have mutations induced by GM to find what gene caused that mutation. Potentially, there are some grass Pokemon that were created through this technique. We already know that Muk was exposed to X-rays, and that is how it came alive, so what about Belsprout, Sunflora or any other grass type pokemon that looks distinctly plantish?
Transgenic plants and crops have also been developed, and this may occur by moving a wheat or bacteria gene into barley, or even introducing a new, synthetic gene. Usually, this is in the context of research, in order to understand the function of a gene. In the future, these new transgenic crops may become commercially available, but because of the controversy surrounding genetic modification and transgenics it can take years for these crops to be approved. Even then, many people choose not to buy genetically modified food for personal or ethical reasons. However, there are some crops that are commercially available. Approximately half of the Papaya crops grown in Hawaii are genetically modified to have virus-resistance genes that were taken from other papayas, or contain genes from the original pathogen, which essentially immunises the papaya (5). These fruits are approved in the USA, and some parts of Asia. Other approved crops are Bt cotton, which forms a pesticide that kills harmful bugs (6). We don’t eat cotton, so it poses no threat to us. Canola oil is also largely developed with transgenic techniques to improve growth and herbicide resistance (7). These techniques could be interesting when we see Pokemon that look very much like more than one plant, or a fusion of a plant and animal. Were tree genes inserted into a tortoise to produce a Turtwig? What about banana genes, bird genes and dinosaurs to produce a Tropius?
Genetically modified animals mostly occur in labs, and are used to test how mutations affect more complex organisms. Sometimes, these animals may be mutated so that they over-produce certain proteins that can then be taken for use in medicine Many antibiotics come from modified mouse antibodies. Transgenics is usually the form of mutation that people think about when they say gene splicing, and it is probably the form Mewtwo underwent. This happens when genes are transferred between animals and plants, or animals and animals, and the process tends to work far less in animals than it does in plants. Some may have heard of ‘glow-in-the-dark’ mice that contain green fluorescent proteins (8), or goats the produced spider silk proteins in their milk (9). There is also a certain type of transgenic Salmon that has been developed to produce lots of growth hormones so they can grow larger, but it is not commercially available(10). While it is possible, it is not as easy or stable as genetic modification in plants. But, of course, Pokemon scientists are far more advanced than us, so maybe they were able to take the genes from a fish and insert them into a seagull to make a Wingull, or make they exposed a panda to radiation or particle bombardment to produce a Pancham.
So, as you can see, genetic modification and transgenics is possible for us, so it isn’t beyond belief that the Pokémon world can also utilise these techniques. After all, we know some Pokémon have already definitely been created or modified (i.e Muk, Mewtwo etc.). If we have a quick look at Type:Null, it has many features of multiple animals. It looks somewhat doglike, but it has a fish fin tail and hawk-like front legs. While yes, this could just be a case of random mutations, I am more inclined to believe it is a transgenic Pokémon that has the DNA of many different Pokémon, giving it that motley look. Type: Null was created by using the cells of every Pokemon type, which Faba fused together. Potentially this meant that the DNA was taken from these cells and inserted through transgenic techniques into a single Pokemon embryo. Alternatively, these cells or “parts” could have been grafted or stitched together in the manner of Frankenstein’s creature, and then genetically modified or had new transgene introduced. This would make it less of a genetic mutant like Mewtwo, and more of a Chimera, where a single organism has multiple genomes.
So whether Pokemon truly were created through genetic modification or not, it is certainly an interesting and complex idea!
End note – A GMO is an organism. A genetically modified pumpkin is unlikely to contain GMOs, unless some mutated radiation worms got inside it. It IS the GMO, it doesn’t CONTAIN the GMO. Semantics, I know.
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