First, what is it and how does it differ from what we had before?
We are frequently told by the biotech industry there is nothing new with Genetically Modified (or Engineered) technology – that man has been doing this since forever – so first we need to understand what happens naturally; what man has done through human history, and what GM is. It is important to know the differences there are.
First – Natural development before man
This is evolution, which either involves mutations that occur naturally or a plant (or animal) crossing with another in the same family to produce a new form of that family. This will flourish if it better suits its environment, or die out if it doesn’t. It is a slow process, producing new life forms that inhabit environments that best suit them. Interestingly it is evolution that has altered all life to keep up with the changing climate through history, though that ability to adapt and regenerate is about to be sorely tested.
In the case of the Pines, evolution produced the Scots Pine for Scotland, the Stone (or Umbrella) Pine for the north Mediterranean coast and the Monterey Pine for California but they are all in the Pine family ‘Pinus’.
Scots Pine on the left
Stone Pine above
Monterey Pine on the right
While the family similarities can clearly be seen, they are obviously different.
In the case of the hugely important grasses, ultimately the source of most food on the planet, Emmer wheat evolved and Spelt wheat evolved from it after crossing naturally with Goats Grass. But that was over 10,000 years ago.
Emmer wheat, the ancestor of all modern wheats, was the first cultivated grain ‘farmed’ around 12,000 years ago in the Tigris/ Euphrates region in the Fertile Crescent.
In the case of animals, the wolf and wild dogs (like the Australian Dingo) evolved and again we can see clearly how similar they are – though again quite different.
The Grey Wolf
The Australian Dingo
The first man-made developments
From the earliest days of agriculture man has selected stronger forms of a plant (or animal) that evolved, and grew (or bred) them en masse where he wanted them, usually for food. This is what he did with Emmer wheat.
Later on we learnt how to cross fertilise plants, so we could take a wheat and cross it with another member of the grass family to produce a different wheat or grass. We would spread that if and when it had a benefit to man, but discard it if it didn’t. In this way new ‘ever better’ (as far as man was concerned) strains of plant were produced but it was always within a family.
The image here is of Einkorn wheat which was farmed along with Emmer from about 7,500 years ago. Interestingly, although it does contain gluten, it is in a different format from modern wheats and may be tolerated by those with a gluten intolerance.
Modern wheats don’t look so different BUT we have developed them to grow on very short stems allowing them to about double the yields.
In Central America early man developed another wild grass about 7,000 years ago called ‘Teosintle’ maize. The two images here show the early plant and its cob.
Now compare those with what man has created from that below. This was originally achieved by selecting the better plants, and more recently by cross fertilising, but it always involved ‘improving’ the family plant.
Teosintle Maize and cob
Modern maize cob
If we are to understand what we have done before GM, in order to compare that with GM, we should also look at an animal, and here we will take the dog as an example as we all know dogs. From the early days of man stopping being a hunter gatherer and settling down with agriculture, and actually somewhat before that (around 15,000 years ago), we domesticated the grey wolf shown above. By the same means we then produced a variety of dogs which to this day has produced the enormous range we now have. But each time it was within the dog family. Here are some of the animals we have ‘created’ from that original Grey Wolf:
Top left is the Alaskan malamute which is clearly closely related to the wolf but all the rest bar 2 are breeds man has created by selective breeding. It is pretty amazing that we have ‘produced’ all these from a single species with most of them being for our pleasure. The two other images are of my dog which is not a breed but a cross. As she was a rescue I don’t know her parentage but we think she is a Greyhound/Rhodesian Ridgeback cross.
Modern horticulture has also taken the practice to extremes. We can see that when our pleasure is involved there is almost no end to what we will create, producing plants that bloom in forms quite unavailable from natural evolution, in places they couldn’t have survived and at times they couldn’t have flowered. All we have to do is to find the species plants and we see the difference. Here we will look at the Clematis starting with a wild species on the left, a species next and modern plants after that:
Clematis aristata on the left
Clematis species ‘leatherflower’ on the right
Modern hybrids below
But all too often this human selective process has produced plants and animals that while ‘better’ (a subjective term) in some ways, are weaker in others. Left to nature these weaker life forms would have died out and we often have to struggle to keep them going.
This is also abundantly clear with many pedigree dogs, several having severe handicaps in one way or another but man ‘likes’ them. We have questions to answer even before the advent of GM but everything so far has at least been produced without the Genetic Modification process.
A Modern man-made half way development
Before genetic engineering arrived we had and have ‘Mutation breeding’. Man being man, when we understood new forms of plants can arise when natural mutations occur, we worked out a way to increase the chances that would happen. Any mutation is a genetic change in the DNA, so by bombarding seeds with radiation or what are called ‘mutagenic’ chemicals – we can increase the probability of mutations occurring.
This process, which can damage perhaps 50,000 cells/day, was discovered around 1940 but we have no way of predicting what the result will be as the bombardment is random. This can be seen from the photo of a ‘mutation factory’ in Japan (below). From all the mutations that occur most are of no value but occasionally one may be useful – according to the scientists. Having altered the DNA, while we may see a benefit from a resulting ‘plant’, it may of course have one or more dis-benefits from other alterations we don’t at first see. As an example, the resulting plant may have cancer forming properties which we won’t see for many years. Or it may be all good. We and they don’t and cannot know.
A powerful radioactive source in the centre of this field hammers surrounding plants with gamma rays.
This treatment induces random damage to DNA that results in new genetic variation.
As with everything man does that can increase the wealth of those doing it, those benefitting at best ignore the negative impacts the rest of us will suffer; often conceal the damage it will do, sometimes blatantly miss-inform or frankly lie about the impacts. This is a truism that has played out and does play out continuously, as with the farcical presentation of the Chief Execs of all the tobacco companies who testified to Congress that smoking cannot do you any harm and doesn’t cause cancer.
Much more recently the Banking industry developed products that were roulette gone mad, but as if everything went well the Bankers won, and if all went pear shaped – they wouldn’t lose – they sold them until the pear shape blew. Don’t imagine the huge multi-national Biotech Corporations won’t and don’t do the same as they now have a monster investment in GM technology and plan to win or dominate at any cost. We will see in the main Paper what they get up to.
With Mutation breeding the life forms created can be really dangerous, but this situation has been largely ignored by the regulators in spite of the enormous potential hazards of the process. Fortunately it hasn’t been a productive process so there haven’t been many plants produced. Interestingly and I quote, “many studies and reports that recommend radiation-induced mutation breeding are sponsored by organisations that promote nuclear energy” – GMO Myths & Truths.
What a surprise.
Mutation breeding is changing the genetic structure of the plant but it is at least done to the genes within the plant.
Modern knowledge based plant development
This works in exactly the same way as ‘Man-made development’ explained above but with one important difference. We are now able to know what genes in a plant are of interest to us, so rather than cross all sorts of plants to see what we get, we are able to be much more selective. We can choose which two plants to cross, exactly as explained above (for example two potatoes) where we already know one has a gene (or genes) we want in the other. This means we can develop plants much more quickly with exactly the traits we want, but it only involves using the plant family we want to ‘improve’ and only with conventional plant breeding so it could have happened but would have taken longer. This in turn means the lengthy trial and error process is avoided.
We will see the results of this later compared with GM products.
After we had a much better understanding of both DNA and genetics, it became possible to identify genes that do something in particular, and in this case something we would like from any life form – a plant or animal. From this followed the idea of inserting these genes that have a characteristic we want, into plants or animals we want them in.
But here is the difference: The genes that have the characteristic we want don’t have to come from the plant (or animal) family we want to change. They can come from any living thing – plant, animal, virus, bacteria or even human. Anything. It could be a hundred million year old plankton. It could even be a dinosaur if the gene can be extracted!
The very fact they take genes from other than the plant (or animal) family they are trying to ‘engineer’ means the genes they want are not already in that family. By definition this means they are making a living organism that could not have occurred in nature. It is a true ‘bastard’. The very fact the scientists and biotech companies tell you they are doing nothing different, by itself should raise every alarm system there is. If they cannot be honest about this – where else does honesty take a back seat?
For the first time in human history, man can ‘make’ life forms that could not have evolved.
That is one huge difference.
If this is or becomes acceptable there is no reason whatever why we shouldn’t genetically modify anything with anything and what rule would then limit how much genetic change should be inflicted on anything. Is this scaremongering? No. It is fact. Who is going to lay down a law that has some arbitrary limit on what can be genetically engineered and how much genetic change can be used in any one case? One gene? A hundred? 10,000? This is an escalator to a pseudo world where scientists decide what life forms they want to make.
Science is creeping and becoming creepy – but that is a personal opinion. There is a question beginning to appear – just because we can do something, should we always be allowed to do it? The scientists argue that each development is small so isn’t that much different from anything already around and should therefore be allowed. The outcome of this argument is that everything will always be allowed provided the scientists call each change ‘small’.
Given we seem to want some bizarre changes to all sorts of things – dogs for example – why wouldn’t someone decide they want one that glows in the dark? Surely this could be done by inserting one or more genes taken from a glow worm or jelly fish or other life form that can fluoresce. Then we could find Fido in the dark.
These are ‘owned’ by Yorktown Technologies which is of course an American Company and the public release of them was approved by the FDA – the US Food and Drug Administration that we will be reading much more about in the main Paper. As it is a tropical fish, sooner or later it will escape into wild waters probably in Florida, and a GM fish, that has no use whatsoever, will have entered the natural environment.
For the first time in human history, man has made animal life forms that could not have evolved.
I can see a ‘Cog’ coming. After all, why not cross a cat with a dog? With sufficient gene transfer a very odd animal would result and someone, somewhere, would want one. Unless stopped, someone somewhere will do that.
The previous development of life forms couldn’t mix up the genes from different ones, so while the biotech companies argue and even say genetic alteration is not new, and therefore genetic engineering does not need additional regulation – to almost everybody on the planet except those in the biotech companies – this is a totally different way of producing new plants and animals and as an absolute minimum needs heavy regulation.
So how do they actually do it?
They would have us believe it is a very targeted operation with known outcomes, yet the truth is about as far away from that as is possible, as we are about to see:
- The plant being modified has millions of cells produced in a culture.
- These are then either:
- Bombarded with the gene they want to ‘insert’ using a gene gun, or
- Bombarded with genes linked to an element of DNA in a soil bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens. This helps insert the genes into the plant’s DNA cells.
- Note: the gene is normally engineered to carry an antibiotic with it.
Sounds fantastic? Well, here is a gene gun! Think you could hit the target when it is a DNA strand? No. It should be called a ‘gene scatter gun’ or ‘gene lottery device’.
- The now possibly modified plant cells are grown on into plants, but the scientists have no idea what they have done or what genetic and other changes have occurred (if any) to any of the resulting plants.
- Weak plants are eliminated (wonder where they all go) and the stronger plants tested to find those with high levels of the inserted gene. This is done by using that antibiotic, as the ‘products’ are then subjected to a pathogen the antibiotic protects against. Surviving cells should therefore have the antibiotic and the target gene in them.
- These are then grown on as candidates for the commercial market.
What possible implications are there from the process?
The insertion process is completely random and the position in which the gene inserted can be anywhere within the plants normal genetic structure. This may stop the original function of the gene; alter it, or change when it does it (see epigenes below).
Umpteen genetic changes could and almost certainly have occurred apart from the one desired, and there is no knowing what effect any of these will or could have either on the plant, the wider environment or the consumers of the plants – human or animal. Before they could be tested the bio-technicians would have to know what they had changed, but The GM plants produced may contain hundreds or thousands of mutations throughout their DNA. They would have to test the effect of all those (unknown) combinations. That isn’t possible and they know it.
The modification could have altered the genes that impact on disease or pest resistance (as plants have evolved natural defences over huge periods of time) so they may have weakened the original plants. They could have altered the nutritional value; drought resistance; crop productivity; made them toxic or allergenic – it is a long and serious list. And there are many more possible effects but that is enough for now.
It isn’t a precise science. It is a very imprecise science. They don’t and cannot know what they have produced and cannot know if a GM plant is safe to eat or safe in the environment. All they can do is put it into the agricultural system and see what happens – which is what they have done and are doing courtesy of the regulators.
Not often talked about but these turn out to be extremely important when considering Genetic Modification, so what are they?
The DNA in every living organism contains the genes that define that living organism and determine the various traits it has. But how strongly will each gene be made to work and when will it work? Attached to the genes are epigenes which are effectively the control panels for the genes. They decide when the genes are turned on or off and the degree of activity each gene will be involved in.
If the epigenes are altered, even though the genes may be the same, their performance will be changed. They may do what they did after different triggers; inactive genes may become active; active genes may become inactive, or the level of activity may change.
The process of altering a plant’s genes can alter its epigenes, so even the unaltered genes may behave differently, and genes added may also not do exactly what they might have been expected to do if their epigenes have been altered. In plain English it is a bit of a can of worms and is a further complication of the GM process.
The information here is critical to a basic understanding of the GM process and the effects on resulting plants (or animals). It is clearly not just a simple process for making new plants, very similar to everything man has done before, but is way more complex with no certainty of the outcome. Equally, nobody can know exactly what the GM plant will and won’t do without growing it, and the long term effects are impossible to know until they have been in the environment and the food chain for a very long time.
In the next Paper we will consider the realities of GM agriculture – the good and the bad. The technology is very new in agricultural terms as the first GM crops were only introduced in 1994, so the complete history is only 18 years but starts with the single maize crop engineered to be Roundup Resistant.
We should then be able to reach a conclusion about whether we want GM crops grown at all, and if we are OK with that if we want to consume such products, first or second hand (by eating an animal fed on it or anything produced from an animal fed on it). I think and hope it will be an informative journey.