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Scottish Government GM Policy Team
Saughton House
Broomhouse Drive
EH11 3XD
0300 244 9503
Scottish Government GM Inspectorate
Roddinglaw Road
EH12 9FJ
0131 244 8853

Genetic Modification - Definition

Definition of Genetic Modification

Genetic modification, also known as genetic engineering or recombinant-DNA technology, was first applied in the 1970s. This technique allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another and also between non-related species. It is one of the methods used to introduce novel traits or characteristics into micro-organisms, plants and animals. The products obtained from this technology are commonly called genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

GMOs are officially defined in the EU legislation as "organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or recombination."

Genetic techniques involved could include:

  • transferring genes from one organism to another
  • moving, deleting, modifying, or multiplying genes within a living organism
  • modifying existing genes or constructing new ones, and incorporating them into a new organism

There are many applications for genetic modification. For example, human insulin for diabetics, previously obtained from the pancreas of slaughtered pigs, is now usually made using GMOs. Similarly, genetic modification can be used to produce improved vaccines for animal diseases, and medical therapeutics to treat human conditions.

Genetic modification in plants is often concerned with improving their ability to survive in particular harsh environments, to provide greater resistance to pests and diseases, to improve nutritional qualities, and to create tolerance to certain herbicides. Genetically modified plants have also been developed to produce compounds of potential industrial use.

The most common GM plants that have been developed and commercialised so far are GM maize, soya, oilseed rape and cotton that have been modified to provide resistance to certain insect pests and/or tolerance to herbicides.