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Monday, December 27, 2010

Palin, Genetic Engineering, and Big Business

I while back I wrote Genetic Engineering: It's what's for Dinner.  I discussed the Roundup Ready seed products from Monsanto and how they were in everyday use.  I explicitly covered the details of how it was done as well as referenced the patents filed by Monsanto.

Of particular interest here is that during the creation of "Roundup Ready" seeds Monsanto extracts a large portion of DNA from the life forms used to develop a tolerance to glyphosate.  Claim #4 of the US Patent US Patent 4,535,060 says "A DNA sequence of less than 5 Kb having a structural gene coding for a glyphosate resistant 5-enolpyruvyl-3-phosphoshikimate synthetase."

This morning I read this opinion piece (link) in the WSJ: Ag Department Uproots Science.  The particular quote that interests me "the Roundup Ready crop [in this case alfalfa] menaces the purity of nearby organic fields, potentially cross-pollinating and threatening the livelihood of organic farmers."

The WSJ article complains that "sound science" is being ignored while "activists" set the agenda for what is approved or not approved by the USDA.

Sadly I think the WSJ is a bit late in its assessment of "sound science" - perhaps 30 years too late.

The first "Roundup Ready" patent dates from the mid 1980's.  Since that time a significant amount of additional information wabout what might exactly be in the "less than 5Kb" of DNA used to create the Roundup Ready crops has been unearthed:

 - Wired "Early Reports from the 'Dark Matter' of the Genome"

 - Which leads you to "ENCODE: More Genomic Empowerment"

 - Which covers these many papers.

The papers address the function of what was considered "non-coding junk" (see Wikipedia) in DNA - the spaces between the actual DNA elements which encoded for proteins (introns).

Thirty years ago splicing DNA a la Monsanto and Roundup Ready did constitute "good science".  At that time the only function thought to be carried in the spliced genes was the protein encoding portion.  The introns were useless junk left by evolution - sort of like an old attic full of quaint and useless artifacts.

Today much more is now known about that that "good science" involves.  Specifically the ENCODE papers discuss the venerable Fruit Fly, its genes and (from Wired) "2,000 previously unknown genes" and "more than 100,000 new elements, or molecules that aren’t genes but may still have function in the genome."

So much for useless junk.

So what is 5Kb of DNA contains not only the protens for glyphosate resistance but also other, unknown things - probably quite a lot of unknown things.

The "activists" complain that the Roundup Ready pollen is being spread beyond the Monsanto crops as I covered in my original post.  At this point I have to say that the WSJ needs to check further in to modern science - perhaps they are less than "cutting edge".

Science has progressed since the 1980's.

On the same page as the "Ag Department" (yes, I am reading the "hard copy") article we find "Palin's Food Fight".  This piece contains a discussion of Mrs. Palin's comments on her TV reality show regarding "S'mores" and "Michelle Obama".   Palin specifically says, with regard to serving her children s'mores: "This is to honor Michelle Obama, who said the other day we should not have dessert."

Michelle Obama, like Sarah Palin, has recently emphasized "personal responsibility" is choosing what to eat.

The problem here is that based on my previous comments "choosing what to eat" is no longer a black and white choice like it once was.

And that's my point. 

On the same page where the WSJ is crying foul about "activists" and genetically modified food it is also discussing "personal responsibility" and selecting what to eat.  We now consume foods with artificially embedded genetic material which we do not understand.  So how do we choose wisely here?

And that's a problem.

The "good science" on GM foods is old.  What is being done to our food is clearly, based on the recent research, not so simple as merely transferring a protein coding genes from A to B.  More than just a gene, in fact a lot more, comes along for the ride in what used to be considered "junk DNA".

Consider 98% of human genes do not encode for proteins.

Which means that even if we sequence the entire genome of a human we are still missing 98% of what's being coded - and of that 98% we apparently know about zero regarding what it does.  And it apparently does a lot according to ENCODE.

So what do the Roundup Ready GM introns copied into the GM seeds do? (No one knows.)

Did Monsanto get all the right introns copied?  (No one knows.)

Do they understand what these introns do? (More than likely not.)

Is it a good idea to spread these modified genes around not knowing what they do? (No.)

I don't think that these points make me a crackpot activist.

I think that handing kiddies a lunch box full of big ag bioengineering without knowing what all the introns do does make anyone who supports it a crackpot.

Or perhaps, crackpot is too kind of a word.

Perhaps without full and complete understanding GM modifications like Roundup Ready could be dangerous in some unknown way.  (Given the large percentage of introns in genes relative to protein encoding I think makes this even more dangerous.)

Humanity as a whole has not done a very good job with that sort of thing, e.g., thalidomide, Celebrex and all the other wondrous creations withdrawn from market.  Weren't they all "approved" at some point only to later discover that the approval was perhaps granted to hastily?

The genetic changes being made are more complex than simple drugs you swallow and will therefore likely take much long to express their true meaning.

And drugs don't permanently and uncontrollably alter the genetic nature of our environment.

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