O104:H4 - witch's brew or GM monster

August 2011

2011 O104H4 bacterial outbreak
Source Wikimedia Commons
A new strain of pathogenic E.coli, 'O104:H4', emerged in Germany in 2011. Within six weeks, the bacterium had killed 36 people, made 3,332 people ill, and left 100 with kidneys so badly damaged they face dialysis for the rest of their lives or a transplant.

Investigation quickly revealed that the DNA of O104:H4 is a witch's brew of disease-causing genes. Its genetic armory includes 33 toxins, blood-cell destroying proteins, secretions which bind the bacterium to the gut surface, inflammatory agents, a metabolic pathway which enables it to thrive anywhere (even in the absence of oxygen), and multiple resistance to normally-toxic metals, to name just a few. And added to this, the new bug has resistance to all major classes of antibiotics.

The new strain is very different from all other gene-sequenced E.coli. It has a divergence from the original, harmless, standard 'wild-type' of 99%, with genes from all major classes of E.coli, pathogenic or otherwise.

O104:H4 seems to be a fusion between two recognised, dangerous, diarrhoea and red-blood-cell-damaging E.coli. The new pathogen also has elements from unrelated pathogenic bacteria, such as Salmonella, and Yersinia, and has cell-destroying toxin genes from the unrelated bacterium, Shigella, which have been ferried in by viruses. To make matters worse, the virus-mediated toxin genes are activated by stress, including antibiotics, so that standard medical treatments for infections are dangerous for the patient

Where did this super-bug come from?

GM-sceptics blame genetic-engineers dabbling in germ-warfare. Conspiracy theorists note the linking of O0104:H4 to organic production and declare it part of a biotech industry campaign against the number-one threat to their GM foods.

Realistically, O104:H4 is far too sophisticated a pathogen to emerge from a test-tube or from the intellect of a genetic engineer. As the Institute of Science in Society commented:
“Much more is accomplished by the bacteria themselves than can be dreamt of by human genetic engineers ...”
Indeed, 0104:H4 was most likely created through mating which can introduce new and deadly recombinations of DNA plus repeated horizontal gene transfer. The anti-organic exercise may well have been intentional, but was more likely a case of jumping on a passing bandwagon than a pre-planned plot.

However, O104:H4 could well have links to laboratory and field experiments using GMOs.

Consider that almost all artificial DNA constructs have, at one stage in their development, been attached to E.coli DNA and multiplied up in living E.coli bacteria. This bug was specially chosen to serve the purpose of genetic engineers because it was harmless.

Consider also that, while GM microbes are routinely killed before leaving the laboratory, their DNA can, and does, remain intact.

Consider furthermore that DNA from the killed GM microbes routinely ends up in waste water, sewage and soil. In other words, novel DNA is poured into sites where there exist countless, unidentified, microbes which can acquire it and pass it on.

Consider that soil bacteria will end up inside the guts of animals, both those populating the soil and those feeding off the land. From livestock, they will pass to the humans who are tending or eating them.

Each stage of this journey is a hotspot for horizontal gene transfer (HGT) between microbial life.

What are the regulators doing while this DNA procession unfolds?

Regulators have been happy to authorise the use of GM waste to be used as fertilizer for crops.

The UK government has thrown its support behind the continued trials of GM crops in “suitable sites that could provide greater security than might otherwise be the case” (House of Commons Science and Technology Committee). By 'security' it means secure from anti-GM activists. In other words, the government is prepared to keep the concerned public out, while turning a blind-eye to the artificial DNA which can't be kept in.

The situation is worse in New Zealand. In 2002, the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) recognised the risk of HGT. When the Authority was presented with an application from AgResearch (the Crown research institute, commercially- and publicly-funded) to create GM cattle, it had the sense to require that HGT be monitored during disposal of GM animal matter. This was a very reasonable condition to impose because the effluent from the site, including milk, blood and foetal tissue, was spread onto pastures while the GM carcasses were buried in dedicated pits. All these areas drained through adjacent farmland and waterways into the Waikato River.

(Note. Readers might be familiar with the Pirbright laboratory disaster in England when a virulent strain of foot-and-mouth derived from experimental waste escaped into a nearby stream and infected herds 10 miles downstream of the facility)

ERMA made it clear that “If HGT is detected, genetic modification and disposal of (GM) cattle shall be immediately halted.”

After that, things seem to have become less sensible. The Authority allowed AgResearch to design, conduct and supervise the monitoring of HGT: as later pointed out, AgResearch was effectively asked to monitor itself for findings that would jeopardise its entire commercial programme (Heinemann). A Report was duly submitted, stating that “no problems of HGT were found”.

Then it went from bad to worse. ERMA blindly accepted the Report without asking for the full data nor any independent analyses. It then cancelled the need for further research into environmental impacts of GM animals, and approved experiments on GM cows, sheep and goats for the next twenty years.

A closer inspection of the AgResearch site and Report revealed evidence that the company rigged its experimental protocol so as not to detect HGT. For example, after the carcasses were buried beyond the regulatory minimum depth of 2 metres (and up to 5.8 metres) and after the pit subsidence was filled in with fresh soil, the soil sampling was only once reported to have been taken beyond 30 centimetres deep, and in one instance was at a depth of only 15 centimetres. Furthermore, by its experimental design, the company ignored up to 99.9% of bacterial and all other kinds of microbes.

What seems to have happened, as described by Soil and Health-Organic News Zealand, is that
“As soon as AgResearch saw any hint of HGT in 2004 from samples near the buried GE carcasses, they modified their subsequent sampling to avoid that possibility, and annually reported over several years to ERMA that there was no evidence the HGT was occurring”.
AgResearch's reactions to a critical review on its Report prepared by Prof. Jack Heinemann of Canterbury University, and published in a peer reviewed journal, were typical. More time was requested to respond to the paper: the time wasn't spent on re-examining the points raised by Prof. Heinemann, but was used to work up a media position, discuss the report with the risk and audit committee, and find international experts who could be trotted out to refute the claims. True to biotech industry form, AgResearch also prepared to discredit Prof. Heinemann (shoot the messenger), and suggested the problem was that the public didn't understand the debate (belittle the concerns).

The net result of this extended, government-led, precautionary trial is that research on HGT is still effectively non-existent, and the risk is still unknown.

While attention was being diverted into linking the deaths to organic food and into arguments about whether O104:H4 came from a human or animal source, evidence of a much bigger concern has emerged. After four pupils at a German school were struck down by the bug, it was found that 22 out of the 30 children there tested positive but had no symptoms. This is much more serious because the existence of a high proportion of asymptomatic carriers of the pathogen in a population represents a reservoir and portends a chronic risk of new outbreaks.


Is O104:H4 a witch's brew or a GMO?

Perhaps a bit of both. Whatever it is, we urgently need a scientific answer. We need to know if people are dying horribly because of the mindless flooding of our environment and food chain with artificial DNA. We need to know if we are linking life-forms which should never have been linked, and which are so unnatural that they destroy the natural order of all life around them. We need to know if there are urgent grounds to call a halt on GMOs.

  • Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, How Genetic Engineering May have Created E.Coli Outbreak, Institute of Science in Society Report 27.06.11
  • Prof. Joe Cummins, E.coli O104:H4 A Newly Emergent Pathogen, Institute of Science in Society Report 29.06.11
  • Government Backs High Security GM Test Sites, GM Freeze Release, 15.05.11
  • ERMA has swallowed a lot of genetic bull from AgResearch, Soil & Health Association of New Zealand, 5.05.11
  • AgResearch Ignoring Bio-security Risks, GE Free NZ Press Release, 1.05.11
  • GE Cover-Up or Just Bad Science? GE Free NZ Press Release, 5.05.11
  • Should AgResearch be charged with fraud? Soil & Health New Zealand Media Release, 8.05.11
  • Prof. J. Cummins, Outbreak E.coli not Exclusive to Humans, Institute of Science in Society Report, 1.08.11

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