Natural excuses to avoid GM safety testing

March 2019

The biotech lobby is coming up with all sorts of fancy arguments to avoid regulation of new DNA-altering techniques which don't involve the insertion of novel genes (protein-coding DNA) into an organism.

Industry-led claims abound that small mutations are naturally present in all organisms, as is the presence of horizontal gene transfer between organisms. The story continues to say that because it is equivalent to 'natural', edited DNA is nothing to worry about. It goes on: organisms arising from intentional DNA-editing are similar to those produced by old, random mutagenesis techniques (such as irradiation). Since the latter have never been regulated, there's no reason to do so with the 'new' version. Moreover, DNA-edited organisms are so 'natural' that their identification is impossible and they are, therefore, untraceable, making regulation impossible to enforce. And, even if the changes are found, no one can tell if the mutation is a result of a natural DNA mutation or a deliberate one. In fact, in our Environment Secretary's view, since Mother Nature is already giving us genetic mutations and horizontal gene transfer, biotech scientists are merely giving Her a helping hand.

All this 'reasoning', however, seems to be more to do with commercial expediency than with science.

Engineering the name

March 2019

'Engineer' means construct according to a design: it's something humans do. The design and construction of DNA is chemical engineering: it uses computers, lab equipment, and a lot of fancy enzymes. Lately, the DNA inside a living cell can also be re-designed and re-constructed.

Sadly, all this DNA fiddling has now got so many different names that the basic artificial alteration of life is getting lost in the semantic clutter.

We started off with 'genetic engineering' when the engineered DNA formed a 'gene' (a protein-coding unit). This was followed by 'transgenesis, cisgenesis and intragenesis (depending on where the novel gene originated), and 'genetic modification' (because it sounds less scary). Recently, the Americans hit on the term 'bio-engineering' [1], and there are also anti-sense (back-to-front) genes which block the expression of right-way-round genes. So far, that's seven names just for sticking in an extra bit of DNA.

Then, things moved on with 'gene-editing', a.k.a. 'GM2.0' or 'new GM', which depending on the technique used, can be referred to as ZNF-1, ZNF-2, ZNF-3, TALENs, Meganucleases, CRISPR/Cas, CRISPR/Cas9, ODM, RTDS [2]. This got so complicated that they all got grouped together as New Breeding Techniques or NBTs, as a catch-all phrase for a plethora of molecular nuts and bolts to change life. If you're counting, that's some twenty names for DNA engineering.

Our CRISPR food future

March 2019

DuPont Pioneer scientists published a paper in 2017 which gives an insight into where the biotech crop market is planning to go next. This study demonstrated the "utility" of the CRISPR-Cas9 system [1] in editing maize DNA for breeding drought-tolerant crops.

The study focused on a 'key' gene which controls stress tolerance in maize by altering the plant's sensitivity to the plant hormone, ethylene. When this gene is active, the cells of the plant get bigger and multiply more. Under stress, however, plants tend to conserve their resources, the gene is switched off, and growth is reduced. By adding an artificial 'on-switch', promoter 'ARGOS8', the gene can be rendered uncontrollably over-active, thus overcoming the plant's natural reaction and increasing the yield despite the adverse environmental conditions. Enter the CRISPR-Cas9 trick to insert an artificial version of the ARGOS8 promoter DNA.

The rosy face of gene drive organisms (GDOs)

February 2019

Much attention has been focused on gene drives to eliminate mosquitoes plus all the horrible diseases they carry [1], and to eliminate invasive small mammals plus all the havoc they wreak in foreign ecosystems [2]. The take-home message is that gene drives can be harnessed for the common good as invaluable tools in medicine and conservation.

Odd really, because the patents filed for gene drives are largely for agricultural applications.

Outside the media radar lie plans to eliminate insect pests and weeds, plans to speed-breed GM seeds and higher-yielding GM livestock, and even plans to convert whole bee colonies to a GM form which can be directed by light beams to the required crop needing pollinated, and plans to create GM locusts which don't swarm.

Gene-driven pollution

February 2019

When the notion that "site-specific selfish genes" (able to copy themselves into a particular target DNA sequence) suggested the possibility of gene drives, a technique to rid the world of malaria immediately presented itself. The author who described this warned that the technology "is not to be used lightly, and that containment issues and the desirability of eradicating or genetically modifying a wild species "ought to be addressed during development" with "wide-ranging discussions".

Then came CRISPR [1], which can be designed to target any desired section of host DNA to bring about any desired molecular alteration there, and can be coupled to a gene drive.

Mind the mozzie gap

February 2019

Mosquitoes can't bite you to death. In fact, half of them don't bite at all: only the females have a blood lust, and that's only when they're incubating eggs. Even then, most often, they'll home in on some other warm-blooded, non-human blood source.

Nevertheless, the opportunistic viruses and parasites able to hitch a ride from person to person in a mosquito kill some 850 thousand of us each year.

A choice of two biotech evils

February 2019

In 2018, we saw the merger of two biotech and chemical manufacturing giants. Germany's Bayer swallowed America's Monsanto in a €54 billion buy out which has created a mega corporation with 115,000 employees and anticipated revenues of €45 billion.

The Monsanto brand has been an issue for years, and Bayer, wanting to avoid buying the negative image along with its assets immediately made "Monsanto" disappear.