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Torn at the Genes

One Family's Debate Over Genetically Altered Plants

Jennifer Nelson
School of Medicine
University at Buffalo
Clyde Freeman Herreid
Department of Biological Sciences
University at Buffalo


The setting for this case is the family dinner table, where a heated discussion about genetically altered foods is taking place. Marsha Cumberland’s brother-in-law has joined the family for dinner. Ed is an industry official whose job it is to decide whether or not new products need pre-market approval by the FDA. He has just returned from a conference on transgenic foods.  When it turns out that some of the food on the dinner table is genetically modified, a debate ensues with different members of the family at different ends of the spectrum. Written for an introductory biology course, the case considers the scientific and ethical issues of genetically altered plants.


  • To examine the techniques used to transfer genes from one organism to another.
  • To consider the benefits as well as the costs of genetic engineering.
  • To examine the potential ecological consequences of genetic engineering of crops and
  • To discuss the ethical arguments involved in the manipulation of DNA in organisms and the issue of labeling genetically modified food.
  • To consider the possible evolution of resistance in bacteria and insects due to genetically engineered foods.
  • To consider possible health issues associated with genetically modified foods, including allergies and antibiotic resistance.


Genetic engineering; genetically modified food; genetically modified organism; GMO; transgenic crops; agricultural biotechnology; plant genetics; food production; Food & Drug Administration; FDA

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division



Type Methods

Debate, Dilemma/Decision, Discussion, Role-Play



Subject Headings

Biotechnology Agriculture Botany / Plant Science Genetics / Heredity

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

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Answer Key

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Nicole Weber
Highland High School
Highland IN
The answer key doesn't actually include the answers to the 10 questions. As an ap bio teacher using this in my lower level class, I worry that I may be looking for too much detail. It would be nice to see the answers that were suggested as right, and it would save me time from having to make the key myself. I like this case though.


Editor’s Reply: This particular case was an early entrant into the case collection (published 2002); while the questions are not addressed specifically in the key, the main issues are addressed in the teaching notes and answer key together.