Sunday, June 04, 2006

Genetically Modified Organisms

I was checking out discussion groups in CouchSurfing (that reminds me, I really have to write the inaugaral post about CouchSurfing and Hospitality Club on my travelogue), and saw this group called "Protecting the Environment for a healthier tomorrow". They'd had a very one-sided discussion on Transgenic Crops-- as is usually the case, such groups are filled with people who care for the environment, but most of their "knowledge" comes from scare-mongering environment groups, like Greenpeace. Don't get me wrong, Greenpeace does a tremendous amount of great work, but I absolutely don't agree with their campaign against everything GMO. A couple of years ago it had these imbecile posters all over Vienna that translates to "Is Your Milk Changed? -Against Transgenics [German: Gentechnik]". That is stupid scare-mongering which is amazingly successful in Europe. At the other end we have Monsanto et al. that give an equally one sided view, that no one can trust.

The problem is that there are very few people who look at both sides and are in between. Scientists and Geneticists, who know what is happening (but do not have vested interests), and who may well be listened to by the public, prefer to remain within their ivory towers and don't to speak to the public. Anyways, I joined the group and posted a rather long write up. Probably too long... but hopefully someone in the group will read it. Let's see whether I manage to restart the discussion.

Background: The discussion was started by the moderator in the context of Golden Rice. This rice produces beta-carotene in the part that we eat, its endosperm (it is normally only produced in green tissues). Since a lot of children in poor rice-based societies suffer from blindness because of Vitamin A deficiency, Golden Rice might be a good way to prevent it.
I reproduce my write-up below with minor editing.
[It was written in a hurry, at one sitting, and perhaps later I should research it more and write a better article. But this should do for now. If you are a biologist, you might find things a bit over-simplified, but remember it was written for non-biologists.]

My problem with the debate (as with most issues of environment) is that people on both sides refuse to listen to the opposing side. In this forum, the discussion has been mainly to oppose transgenics, so I'll attempt to go towards the other side. A blanket "Genetically modified food/animals/plants is bad" as propagated by Greenpeace and others is plain crazy. Just as it would be crazy to assume that Monsanto and others are saints on earth.

What is GM technology?
It refers to modification of genetic material of organisms in the laboratory. Remember, right from the beginning of civilization farmers have been crossing plants and animals to obtain better characteristics. This used to take several decades, but now can be done in the laboratory in a few months. None of the food you eat is what used to grow in wild. They are all products of crossing by farmers through centuries.

Common products of GM technology
I bet you have heard of Insulin. It is given to people who suffer from certain forms of diabetes. All insulin for pharmaceutical purposes is only produced from genetically engineered bacteria, and this is the safest possible method. Genetically engineered Insulin is historical as it was the first such case, but now many medicines, hormones, vaccines etc are produced by genetic engineering.
So, please don't put a blanket horror sign on genetic engineering or transgenic technology.

Fine, that was bacteria, what about plants and animals?
Apart from time and convenience there is another huge difference between crossing plants and animals as farmers did, and what can be done in the laboratory. And this is what most the fuss is about. Famers can cross only (closely) related plants, or in case of animals of the same species (exceptions being mules). However, in the laboratory, one could theoretically express any gene from anywhere in a plant or animal, something not possible by farmers. And one can use diverse sources-- express a plant protein in animals or visa versa. For example, there was a recent report of a very useful goat that produces human anti-thrombin (required for blood coagulation) in its milk. Until now this protein used to be extracted from human blood, and given the number of diseases, this is no longer a safe option.
Of course these goats are only for pharmaceutical companies, their milk is not for making cheese. This is an example of what can be done.
The beta-carotene from the main example, again, is something that is present in tomatoes and carrots that give them their red colour. They can be put in rice. Why should this be any problem at all? If you can eat beta-carotene in tomatoes and carrots, what is the problem in eating them in rice?

Real Problems
No, I am not naive enough to say that all transgenics are good and we should all blindly approve of them. There are potential problems and caveats.

a) Environmental: Say a company wants to produce a plant that has a huge yield, but its seeds kill themselves (so that the farmer has to come back to the company to buy these seeds). That might be dangerous to the environment, as these genes might escape through natural sources (viruses and other pathogens, pollen etc) and create havoc to the flora.
There are several such real life examples. But again, not all such cases are harmful, and each case is different and should be studied on merits of its own.

b) Health: In many cases, because of our incomplete knowledge, it is difficult to predict whether expressing a foreign protein, might affect other aspects of the metabolism of the plants and animals, making them unsafe for consumption. This is indeed a huge caveat and justify the cautious approach of many countries to GM food. But extensive tests should be able to find out whether there is a risk in a particular case.

I hope I have been able to show (if not convince) you that transgenics are not all dangerous. Some of them are indeed cause for concern, but each case should be studied on its own merit. The safety of individual cases should be tested really rigourously, and after they pass these tests, they should be allowed to be used.
If babies of poor countries are going blind because of the lack of beta-carotene, and rice that expresses it (and has been rigorously tested to be safe) can be provided to them, I think it would be extremely selfish of us to sit in our armchairs and pontificate that we are against GM food and we won't allow this.

Have we forgotten Marie Antoinette's comment about cakes instead of bread?

Disclaimer: I am a Geneticist, I use genetic engineering techniques every day in the lab, but in basic research only. I don't make transgenic food, or animals that produce stuff in their milk, or clone animals or the like. And I am not associated with any commercial company, although our institute is funded by one.

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