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Getting Smarter About Genetic Modification

One of the reasons that many people with solid scientific backgrounds have concerns about the use of genetic modification techniques in agriculture is the degree to which the potential for unintended consequences seems to be downplayed. This is especially true when microbial genetic material is involved. Unlike more complex organisms, bacteria can spread changes to their genomes through methods other than traditional reproduction; "horizontal gene transfer" across species is said to be responsible for up to 10% of evolutionary changes to bacterial genes. The use of microbial DNA in agricultural biotechnology risks increasing the possibility of horizontal transfer, particularly between bacterial species that don't normally have contact.

Given the overwhelming concern these days about bacteria acquiring antibiotic resistance, one would expect that this would be an area that plant bioengineers would be extra-careful about. One would be wrong. It turns out that genes for a particular type of antibiotic resistance are part of many plant modifications, for reasons explained below. Fortunately, researchers in Tennessee have come across a set of plant genes that impart similar resistance to antibiotics, but cannot be transferred -- horizontally or otherwise -- to bacteria. The adoption of this technique won't allay all reasonable concerns about GMOs, but it would go a long way to preventing one particularly nasty outcome.

Genetic modification is a tricky business. It's actually quite difficult to get one species to accept genetic material from another, and most attempts to make that happen fail. But if the modification one is attempting doesn't have an obvious external effect -- making the species glow, for example, or change color in the presence of land mines -- determining whether or not one is successful can be difficult. For that reason, agricultural biotechnologists often use "marker" genes that can signal whether or not a transfer is successful, but otherwise don't affect the function of the organism.

A common marker is a bacterial gene complex that imparts resistance to the antibiotic kanamycin. The ostensibly modified plants are grown in soil containing kanamycin; plants where the genetic transfer was successful do well, while plants without the marker -- hence without the rest of the transfered genes -- wither due to the chemical. According to one of the Tennessee scientists, Dr. Neal Stewart, about 60-70% of modified plants discussed in scientific literature between 2000 and 2002 included this antibiotic marker.

What Dr. Stewart's team found is that a gene complex from Arabidopsis thaliana -- a very widely-researched plant species -- can also impart resistance to kanamycin, but cannot be transferred to bacteria.

The gene increases production of a protein called an ATP binding cassette (ABC), and - by a mechanism which is not fully understood - makes the plants kanamycin-resistant.

"I would like to see a science-based approach to the regulation of GM crops," said Professor Stewart, "and this could do something to mitigate the regulation and public perception hurdles.

"We have been trying to simulate what would happen if this gene was transferred to microbes; and we can show that if this ABC gene is inserted into E. coli, for example, it does not make them kanamycin-resistant."

Reactions to this discovery are mixed, but fairly predictable. Opponents of GMOs aren't enthusiastic, noting that foods with the bacterial antibiotic gene are already available, and that insufficient research has been done as to the other effects this change might have (true, but such research seems a good next step); GMO industry organizations are somewhat more welcoming, but hasten to assert that the use of bacterial antibiotic genes is completely harmless (a claim that's fairly easy to make, as proving that horizontal gene transfer happened due to a GMO crop is next to impossible).

My take is this: it is pretty much a given that global warming-induced climate disruption will lead to severely negative impacts on global agriculture; it is likely that careful use of genetic modification, along with more conventional "smart breeding" practices, will be needed to help agricultural plants adjust to an altered climate. If so, we need to make certain that such modifications are done as safely as possible, with minimal ecosystem consequences. If this plant-based antibiotic resistance gene proves not to have other disruptive effects, it appears to be a very good step in the right direction for agricultural biotech.

Comments (2)

GMO use in agriculture is dicey but, naked protestors aside, it looks likely to be common practice in the decades to come. I agree that, if this is unavoidable, a lot of research needs to be done and we must proceed cautiously. This probably won't avoid all possible disasters but at least it will help us avoid most of them.

But I wonder. Maybe we should consider using that chicken little idea in as many aspects of agriculture as we can. Meat and veg grown out of stem cells in a lab can be manipulated with less risk of genes spreading to the wild.

The more I think about lab grown meat and veg, the more I think it will benefit the environment--no more factory farms, less use of water, less use of fossil fuels for fertilizer and transportation, less use of land, less chance of disease, less risk of uncontrolled gene transfer--the list goes on and on.

Sega Songha:

It is understood that the gene interaction of an organism is as complex, if not more than, war. By that I mean there are too many things to consider how successful GMOs can & will be. The amazing assuredness of scientists employed by corporations that they know exactly how changing a gene results in a more beneficial product, as if it is like replacing a brick on a wall.

Comparing the knowledge base of evolution versus 5 to 10 years of R&D and estimating how the butterfly effect will be minimal or nonexistent is beyond me, and I studied engineering. A field that assumes with enough money you can do anything, without regard for why. We need more humanities in the curriculum as well as a shift to a 5 year standard.

The scientific community has just begun to recognize the genius of nature via biomimicry, as well as stupidity of mankind ('the majority of gene material is junk.')

What needs to occur is the repeal of patenting life.
Power without control is what is going on.
Nature has proven time and again that it is more powerful.

Figure this: why is it one has to kill everything around GMO crops in order for it to successfully be harvested? What happens to them when things aren't exactly as the manufacturer suggested it? Crop Failure. Their system is designed in a vacuum.
Don't forget, we are a part of nature as well. Nature is a system that has adapted significantly to our effects (squirrels, cattle, etc). In some cases it adapted by removing us.

If we are trying to stick around as long as possible we really need to discover the way to live within the closed system that is nature. I have found that the older the knowledge the more robust it tends to be. See: Indigenous people for more resources.

Water, land and animals are finite. Our population SEEMS to be infinite. The best way to use the materials at hand is by efficient means. Vegetarianism is more efficient.

The effect of maximizing the petrochemical/global food industry has reached its peak. And the effects are Mad Cows, Avian flu, loss of many fish species and mass crop failures.
The use of sustainable organic pratices have not been maximized.


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