GMOs -- frightening and full of possibility

  • Article by: GREG BREINING
  • Updated: April 20, 2013 - 4:47 PM

Genetic modification is the left’s anti-science bugbear. But if you look closely, it’s a brave new world.

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File photo: "GloFish" a Zebra fish genetically modified to glow red or green in reaction to heavy metal pollutants

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Genetic modification may upset our view of the world, but it’s here to stay and may someday help protect what we call natural.

Republicans have labored hard to earn their reputation as the party that fears science — denying the fact of global warming because overwhelming evidence is inconvenient to their deeply ingrained ideology.

But liberals have their own blind spots. For many, it’s GMOs — “Frankenfoods” — despite reams of studies and years of experience that fail to show harmful side effects.

And the reason is not so different from Republicans’ reason for denying global warming: The evidence contradicts a precious worldview — that GMOs indenture Jeffersonian farmers to corporate masters, or that tampering with Mother Nature prevents our return to the Garden of Eden.

In fact, Collide-a-Scape blogger Keith Kloor calls GMO opponents “the climate skeptics of the left.”

But the fact is, the brave new world of genetic engineering is here. And its future, while scary, is also breathtaking and wondrous to contemplate. GMOs already make up much of our food. With new precision in modifying organisms, they will play a growing role in medicine.

While conservationists traditionally — one might say, reflexively — view GMOs as a threat to nature, genetically engineered species may soon play a role in conservation and protecting species.

Predictable resistance

For now, GMOs are meeting plenty of resistance.

Minnesota recently joined several other states in drafting legislation that would require GMO labels on foods that contain genetically modified organisms, such as herbicide-resistant corn. Whether people really want to know they are eating GMOs, when perhaps three-quarters of our processed foods already include them, will be debated in Minnesota and elsewhere.

On a national level, the Obama administration, which promised to replace the most anti-science administration in recent times with science-based policies, recently iced a decision of the Food and Drug Administration — a decision based on science — to avoid antagonizing the greens among the Democratic faithful.

According to reporting by Slate and the Genetic Literacy Project, not until after the 2012 election did the FDA announce its approval for the first GMO food animal — AquaBounty Technologies’ fast-growing Atlantic salmon.

On the international stage, Greenpeace and other environmentalists are battling to stop genetically modified “golden rice,” which produces its own daily dose of vitamin A. Groups blast the grain as Frankenfood and a tool of big business, but the Swiss scientists who bred the rice say it could save the lives of millions of children in Southeast Asia and Africa who suffer from vitamin A deficiency.

These dustups haven’t blocked adoption of GMOs by farmers and consumers. Last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, GMO seeds made up 88 percent of all corn planted in the United States, 93 percent of all soybeans and 94 percent of all cotton. About 80 percent of Canada’s canola has been modified using biotechnology.

According to the nonprofit International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (OK, maybe not the most neutral source): “A 94-fold increase in hectarage from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 160 million hectares in 2011 makes biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture.”

Better tools

There’s no reason to believe GMOs have reached their full potential, if only because we are acquiring powerful new tools to modify the DNA of any living organism — plant, animal or microbial. Genetic modification promises to become easier, more targeted, more efficient and more subtle.

I recently spoke with Daniel Voytas, plant geneticist and director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Genome Engineering. Voytas has been developing a revolutionary new way to snip and edit DNA.

Until recently, engineering plant genetics was a bit of a hope and a prayer. But with technology Voytas helped develop, researchers can locate exact sequences on the DNA molecule of any organism, snip the genome exactly so and introduce new material.

In the past, genetic engineers cobbled together swatches from two organisms — to incorporate, for example, the gene of a soil bacterium into the genome of corn to produce a corn plant that produces its own chemical defense against European corn borer. These “transgenic” organisms gave rise to the appellation Frankenfood.

But now, Voytas said, researchers can tweak individual base pairs of the DNA molecule of an organism. In many cases there’s no need to import part of another life form. In fact, it is the very kind of modification that nature might have done in time — but faster, surer and more efficient.

Said Voytas, “Because it’s precise, it’s subtle and you’re not necessarily adding foreign DNA, it may be met with more widespread acceptance.”

Well, maybe. But acceptance or not, advances are being made with astounding speed.

Voytas announced his discovery in late 2011. By the end of the year, the journal Nature hailed his technology as the scientific “method of the year.” A year later, Science magazine called Voytas’s technique one of science’s top breakthroughs.

But even as that announcement was made, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley and the Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden had discovered yet another method of editing genetic material that promises to be even easier and more powerful.

Despite whatever reservations we may have about messing with Mother Nature, the possibilities seem breathtaking.

In agriculture, scientists continue to use genetic engineering to introduce desirable traits. “You’re going to see a whole range of modifying multiple genes at a time, increasing disease resistance while at the same time changing fatty acids so that the oil made by the plant, for example, is of higher value,” said Voytas.

As the climate changes in unpredictable ways, it’s easy to imagine that geneticists will try to breed crops, and perhaps animals, that are better adapted to new conditions.

“Plants have a lot of work to do for humankind in the next two or three decades,” said Voytas. “It’s going to be difficult for traditional methods to keep up, in my opinion. We’re going to need these newer technologies to ensure that plants can do the business we need them to do.”

In medicine, genetic engineering is poised to provide cures for genetic diseases, such as hemophilia and sickle-cell anemia. It might soon cure devastating illnesses, including cancer and HIV, by conferring the resistance that some people come by naturally.

Protecting diversity

But that kind of vision has become almost prosaic. The brave new world is braver than that.

George Church, a Harvard genetics professor and a pioneer in the emerging field of “synthetic biology,” has suggested that we will soon be able to engineer the genome of a Neanderthal and to give birth to one, via a human “mother.”

“The main goal is to increase diversity,” he told the German magazine Der Spiegel. “The one thing that is bad for society is low diversity. This is true for culture or evolution, for species and also for whole societies. If you become a monoculture, you are at great risk of perishing. Therefore the re-creation of Neanderthals would be mainly a question of societal risk avoidance.”

An engineered population of Neanderthals raises ethical issues that make the project almost unimaginable. But scientists and others are beginning to imagine projects to use genetic engineering to bring not cavemen but other creatures back from the dead end of extinction.

One is Stewart Brand, one-time publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, technologist and environmental forward-thinker. His Long Now Foundation’s “Revive and Restore” project proposes reintroducing the passenger pigeon.

The last one died 99 years ago in the Cincinnati Zoo. But its DNA survives.

Brand would use recent advances in genetic editing to identify and extract the genetic material that distinguishes a passenger pigeon from its nearest living relative, the band-tailed pigeon. Brand’s group would insert the unique passenger pigeon DNA into the band-tailed pigeon’s genome to achieve a passenger-like hybrid that would be released into the wild.

David Blockstein, senior scientist for the National Council for Science and the Environment, has been following Brand’s project. Blockstein, an ornithologist, has written about the complex storm of forces that drove the passenger pigeon to extinction. His opinion on resurrecting the pigeon from the dead?

“It ain’t going to be done,” Blockstein told me recently. Even if a suitable facsimile of the bird were created, it would be nearly impossible to reintroduce a creature that lived in sky-sized flocks and depended on nesting colonies of thousands or millions to protect its single-egg nests from predators. “To be successful, you would have to have something on the order of maybe 1,000 but probably more likely 10,000 passenger pigeons to be able to live in the wild. The odds against it are just staggering.”

But he doesn’t dismiss using genetic engineering to aid conservation.

“If I was controlling the money, I would be putting it all into trying to understand and probably breed resistance in frogs to the Chytrid fungus, which is just rampant in frog populations worldwide,” he said. “And here’s potentially where we’re going to lose a whole subclass of animals. And that’s happening on our watch.”

Other conservationists are beginning to think along the same lines. Kent Redford, former lead scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and now head of Archipelago Consulting, has organized a WCS conference this spring in Cambridge, England, that will consider the gnarly intersection of synthetic biology, nature and conservation.

“I think it really isn’t on the radar screen of the conservation community at all,” says Redford. “I saw a need for this meeting because this field is offering enormous potential in a whole different set of human endeavors. And the conservation community has the potential to be tremendously affected by the activities of synthetic biology. And yet we as a field are very often the last ones to learn about new innovations in society. And I got tired of always being in the group that never knew about the latest thing.”

Think about it: Engineering a white pine immune to blister rust or North American ash trees impervious to emerald ash borer. Creating microbes with voracious appetites for oil spills. Breeding crops with higher yields or less hunger for fertilizer. Or restoring the American chestnut, which once cast tall shadows across the eastern United States until it was virtually wiped out by a fungus-caused blight.

“There are a lot of opportunities to be thinking of these things,” says Redford.

Frightening to contemplate? Yes, a bit. But exciting, too, for all the possibilities.

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Greg Breining writes about science, nature and travel. He is the author of “Paddle North: Canoeing the Boundary Waters-Quetico Wilderness” and “Wild Shore: Exploring Lake Superior by Kayak.”

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