Natural GM

July 2014
 
Leaf detail. CC photo by Lylir Horton on Flickr
At the same time as genetic engineers have been having fun building chains of nucleic acid (NA) molecules into artificial DNA sequences and using them to infect cells, scientists have been piecing together the story of natural genetic engineering.

Living cells have to adapt very quickly to changes in their environment. If they didn't, there wouldn't be much life on earth. Waiting for an appropriate Darwinian 'random genetic mutation' to crop up would be too slow. Since cells are intelligent enough to correct, as a matter of routine, between 99.9% and 99.99% of DNA errors, and if all else fails have the wisdom to self-destruct instead of reproducing the mistake, random genetic mutations are too rare to rely on for something as important as survival. 

Natural cells have a large store of 'spare' DNA*. This store can be drawn upon to re-formulate the genetic complement of the cell, so that it continues to function healthily when circumstances change.

Cells have all the biological mechanisms for cut-and-splice operations, and all the inner fluidity to move the bits of DNA around so they are in the right place at the right time.

Natural genetic engineering is simplified by the modular nature of natural 'genes' which rarely exist as single entities but, rather, as components which can be dispersed throughout the genome. Moreover, these gene segments come ready-equipped with extensive sequences of regulatory DNA.

The whole network of structural support, gene bits, regulatory bits and spare DNA can be re-jigged to fine-tune DNA function to the needs of different stages of cell growth and development, or of changing environmental conditions.  

By 'environment' is meant all the physical levels surrounding the DNA: from the RNA and protein molecules generated directly by the DNA, to the whole cell's living cytoplasm in which the DNA exists, to adjacent cells, and the weather outside them. This amounts to a staggering multitude of interactions influencing the DNA at any one time.

The end of the story is a healthy, perfectly functioning, natural cell which is a result of its own genetic engineering.

What you end up with after artificial genetic transformation is something else.  

Mechanistically-conceived and mechanically-functioning artificial DNA units scramble and destabilise the natural genome (including the genes, the regulatory DNA, and spare stocks of DNA). They have all the characteristics of infectious DNA 'parasites', and cause permanent stress in the plant [1]. Such a weakening of the organism has huge implications for the safety and sustainability of our food plants. It also has knock-on implications for consumer and environmental health, and dire implications for the evolutionary potential of our future crops.

Artificial constructs, crudely created and inserted, will interfere with the whole complex, inter-connected, coherent adjustments made by natural genetic engineering on which the health of our crops, ourselves, our environment and our future depend.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Read more about Evolution by Natural Genetic Engineering at The Institute of Science in Society.
Then, tell others.

[1] STRESSED PLANTS, STRESSED PEOPLE - GMFS ARCHIVE, June 2010

* In the human genome, the 'spare' DNA amounts to some two-thirds of the total.

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