Huntsville High students learn snack foods are often genetically modified

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The Huntsville Times

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By Pat Ammons Newcomb

HUNTSVILLE, AL – Ali Kelly knows now that there’s more to her food than meets the eye. In fact, the Huntsville High freshman will never look at a Frito the same way again.

Photo: Dave Dieter/The Huntsville Times
Huntsville High biology teacher Melissa Kunze helps Emily Lapidus load a flash gel to test to see if her snack food contains genetically modified organisms.

Ali and her classmates in Melissa Kunze’s freshman biology class recently learned that most of the snacks they consume contain genetically modified organisms. Ali didn’t just read that fact in a book. She saw it for herself after her team extracted fragments of DNA from their snack food and put them through a polymerase chain reaction – a laboratory process for duplicating DNA.

The students then loaded the wells of a flash gel and separated the PCR products by electrophoresis so they could see if their particular chip or cookie was, in fact, genetically modified.

"You’re looking for two specific gene markers," said Jennifer Hutchison, a biology specialist with Alabama Science in Motion, who was helping Kunze conduct the activity.

As it turned out, not only were Ali’s Fritos genetically modified, but so were most of the other chips, cookies and crackers her classmates were testing.

"The government doesn’t have to tell you if it’s genetically modified or not, so there’s no way of knowing," said Ben Malone, Ali’s lab partner.

Exploring the genetic makeup of our food seems like a pretty complicated project for freshman biology students, but it’s possible thanks to the HudsonAlpha Institute of Biology. HudsonAlpha developed the lab and provides the equipment that Hutchison takes to schools around North Alabama.

The GMOD lab, as it’s called, is one of a number of labs HudsonAlpha has developed for middle and high school students. It’s also one Kunze studied this summer at a HudsonAlpha Teacher Academy.

"So much of what you focus on is how to take concepts and bring them into the classroom," Kunze said of the summer at HudsonAlpha.
Genetics is a tough concept for students to grasp because it’s not something they can see. Hands-on work such as distilling a potato chip down to its DNA gives them the visual aid to understand things on a molecular level.

"This stuff is so exciting," Kunze said.

Each of the teachers who attended the summer Teacher Academy received about $800 worth of equipment to use in their classrooms. That’s in addition to the lab kits and equipment HudsonAlpha supplies to Science in Motion for use throughout the state.

Kunze was warned this summer that her students would not realize their food was once a plant product, something that had DNA in it.

"The kids will fight you all the way to the results," Jennifer Carden, the coordinator of K-12 activities at HudsonAlpha, told the teachers. "They’ll say, ‘There is no DNA in my Cheetos, my Fritos. Do not ruin my snack time.’"

On the day her students got their results, they had figured out the DNA part, but the genetic modification of their snacks was a little unsettling.

"It kind of freaks me out if they fiddle with it," Shalaya McElhiney said.

Just as she did at the Teacher Academy, Kunze discussed with her students why farmers grow genetically modified foods. By incorporating DNA from one organism into another, new crops can be developed that are more insect-resistant, drought-tolerant or capable of producing fruit in colder climates.

So what’s the down side? Genetically modifying foods could trigger allergic reactions, among other side affects, Kunze said. There are other health concerns, as well as ethical and economic considerations, so many that European countries ban genetically modified foods.

"This gets them thinking about their world," Kunze said.

And what they eat.

"I never really thought about what I was eating until today," said Marques Whitman, one of Kunze’s freshmen. "I just ate it."