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Moving Beyond Rip-Mix-n-Burn Genetic Engineering
Brandon Keim, 1 Aug 06


For a while it seemed that hardly a week went by without some genetically modified crop being touted as the next great breakthrough in increasing harvests or ending world hunger.

Usually these modifications were developed by titans of unsustainable industrial agriculture and implemented in careless and ethically dubious ways. But that wasn't the worst of it; scientists quite simply don't understand enough about plant genetics, to say nothing of ecosystem dynamics, to make rip-mix-and-burn GM work safely.

Instead, the most promising advances in agricultural biotechnology tend to be the most subtle ones -- techniques that steer away from transgenic hacking and focus instead on increasing our understanding of plant genetics. Recent research from the University of Arizona's Bio5 Institute provides a good case in point.

In a study published in the July 20 issue of Nature, the U of A researchers looked at a phenomenon known as "paramutation," which underlies the tricky fact that, though the DNA is identical, genes in offspring sometimes function quite differently than genes in parents.

Vicki Chandler, the study's senior author, said of paramutation in a press release, "It's been known to exist for 50 years, but nobody understood the underlying mechanism."

In corn, a gene called b1 is traditionally thought to control whether plants have purple or green stalks. If one of the two b1 copies that a plant inherits from its parents is a variant known as B-I, the plant will be purple -- unless, it turns out, that the plant has two mutant versions of a gene called mop1, which earlier work showed was necessary for paramutation to happen. In the Nature study, the researchers describe how mop1 produces an enzyme called RNA-dependent RNA polymerase. RNA carries information from genes to protein-making cellular machinery, and had long been suspected of playing a part in paramutation.

The next research step is figuring out exactly how all these pieces work together to change gene function, and determining what other components are involved. Hereditary variability involves much more than genes and RNA alone: there's environmental influences, epigenetic change, nucleosome placement, vast interactions of multiple systems at varying scales that scientists have only started to comprehend.

But the corn paramutation research could help lead to a deeper, more nuanced understanding of plant development, and eventually to more sensible farming practices and technological -- or non-technological -- interventions. By providing a welcome, complexity-embracing approach to genetics, research like this is bringing us closer to wiser and more worldchanging biotechnology.

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The article linked to on Bt cotton (under the 'rip-mix-and-burn' link) isn't really specific to genetic engineering -- indeed, take out the phrase 'genetic engineering' from the article and what you're left with is, in essence, "new cotton breed doesn't live up to marketed expectations - farmers upset".

Consider that 'conventional' crop breeding methods involve encouraging and/or inducing the kind of random mutations in genetic material that happen in nature anyway -- in other words, indirectly engineering the genetic material. The purpose of breeding is and always has been to introduce new genetic code, be it by crossbreeding existing 'natural' plants to encourage 'natural' mutation from sunlight or the background radiation of the earth or just mistakes in the cell division process; be it inducing these mutations using uv light or x-rays or alpha/beta/gamma radiation; or be it genetic engineering.

I think there is a place for genetic engineering in a Bright Green future, but not the way it is currently being used. Most of the problems associated with genetic engineering at present are political, not scientific: they are to do with the politics of massive-scale argicultural corporations, not the science itself.

Imagine if community organisations were able to breed GE plants tailored for their specific local needs and problems, and then were able to grow these seeds organically (in the artificial fertiliser, pesticide and herbicide free sense of the word). No corporate argicultural hegemony, no terminator genes, no patents or intellectual property -- just seeds to address specific local agricultural issues in specific local ways, grown in accordance with local practise and with the long-term interests of the community at large firmly in mind.

(Ironically, the main reason Big Agriculture seem to be the only folks into GE is that the process of testing and approval required by current law is such that only Big Agriculture can afford to do it; what's more, because of the pervasive idea that GE bred crops cannot be classed as 'organic' (even though seed produced using GE methods can be organically grown) there are political reasons to reject GE seed. The reason some poor countries' governments (governments, mind) have rejected GE food relief is because they don't want to reduce the prices their own crops sell for in the markets of rich Europeans.)

For anyone interested in thinking about GE from a non-polarised perspective, I can very much recommend a book I read earlier this year called Mendel in the Kitchen (which you can read in its entirety online here, for free).

Posted by: damian on 2 Aug 06

Thanks, Damian, for the thoughtful response. I agree that many of the agricultural GE's biggest problems involve the entities doing the engineering; the problems of industrial agriculture are repeated with a GE twist. The Bt cotton story isn't just about the failure of the crop; it's also about a Mahyco-Monsanto's abuse of law, people and science. (FWIW, a paper I wrote on the situation can be found here.

However, I'd argue that the types of modifications promoted by the agbiotech giants -- Bt cotton being a fine example -- reflect their social and political ethos. Haphazardly jamming DNA from one species into another, without fully understanding all the different biological systems of the target organism, is not comparable to traditional breeding. This type of engineering, even if done by well-intentioned community organizations, is not sensible -- or, at the very least, should be only a tiny part of the larger agbiotech repertoire.

And the argument that the testing and approval process is an impediment to small-scale, green GM -- correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this is what you're implying -- is a dangerous one. Once a modified organism enters the environment, it's awfully hard to recall or constrain. Nobody's going to think any better of a field-decimating superbug because its evolution was accelerated with crop modifications developed by nice local folks.

Posted by: Brandon Keim on 3 Aug 06

The problem with GE is that we’re like six-year olds with matches in a dry forest: We don’t really understand the dangers of this cool new toy we have. Until we’re older and wiser, we simply should not be playing with this stuff. Mistakes could be catastrophic.

Posted by: Michael K on 6 Aug 06

Thanks, Brandon.

The crux of my beliefs about this are that if the rogue superbug problem is a problem for GE then it is a problem for conventional breeding as well. To use the phrase 'haphazardly jamming DNA from one species into another' is to misunderstand the way both GE and conventional crop breeding operate.

First, at the genetic level, the definition of 'species', which is never particularly clear on close inspection in the first place, as some schools philosophy of aesthetics make clear, all but collapses. As humans we share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and with mice; we even share 60% of our DNA with a banana. The idea of 'toad genes' or 'potato genes' becomes distinctly weaker with this is mind.

Second, conventional breeding (and natural mutation) uses radiation from some source to mess up the DNA. Conventional breeding (and natural selection) is a process of allowing plant material to be randomly (haphazardly) attacked by mutagenic processes, in order to randomly (haphazardly) jam new bits of genetic code randomly (haphazardly) extracted from the ether into its DNA. To say that GE is by contrast precise and therefore better is a fallacy, of course; but to say that GE is singularly bad in its haphazardness misses the point in the other direction.

As to your second point, you're right, testing and approval are extremely important, but I believe they're equally important whether we're conventionally breeding or genetically engineering. The process of genetic engineering is no more safe or dangerous than conventional crop breeding. GE does raise some specific issues, especially around allergenic proteins, it's true, but it's a qualititave rather than a quantitative difference in safety issues. Just because something is conventionally bred, it doesn't mean it's by definition safer.

As I understand it, as well, some or many of the more prohibitively expensive testing and approval processes specific to GE are motivated more by politics (the politics of fear: cf Frankenfoods) than by science. As in, to even test for some of the things that get tested for, and the restrictions on environmental release, are overkill. For sure, GE does raise some particular issues that do need specific address by testing, but I'd argue that a reduction in the scope the testing would not go amiss if it would lower the barriers to entry.

Posted by: Damian on 6 Aug 06

Also, for what it's worth, I don't believe for a moment in the concept of a 'dangerous argument'. Call me a punk if you like but the more 'dangerous' an argument is, the more it desperately needs getting out into the public eye.


Posted by: Damian on 6 Aug 06



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