Why fear DNA?

“The World Health Organisation of the United Nations has concluded that there is no inherent risk in consuming DNA, including that derived from GM crops. This view is based on the long history of safe consumption of significant quantities of DNA from a wide variety of sources, including plants, animals and microbes.” (Report on Project FO1004 prepared for the Food Standards Agency)
Is this conclusion based on sound logic?

Does a long history of consuming natural DNA in plants, animals and microbes really make it safe to eat DNA which was constructed in a test-tube, multiplied in a bacterium, then forcibly inserted into plant cells from which whole food crops are grown? None of these procedures has any 'history' of use, safe or otherwise.

The reality of genetic engineering is that genes and active non-gene sequences of DNA are copied from the genome of all sectors of the living world. They are heavily altered by man to make them plant-like, maximise their function, and make sure they by-pass the recipient plants' defences. All the engineered bits are attached to each other and to some entirely synthetic DNA sequences. The resulting novel constructs have no history of consumption.

Add to this that, when transgenic DNA is inserted into the plant, the construct and the DNA around it are changed: they gain bits, lose bits and swap bits around. In other words, the DNA in GM food does not have the sequences from any plants, animals or microbes which have a history of safe use.

This all begs the question: is it reasonable to assume that such extraordinary DNA, engineered by man outside its living origins, and then scrambled, will be free from extraordinary properties?

Transgenic DNA has been specially constructed to form an independent operational unit which will survive intact throughout laboratory manipulations, invade the genome and function outside normal cellular control. Can it be assumed that the novel DNA construct will become inactive and immobile once it has become food and we have eaten it?

Consider ... We know that operational units of DNA have a long history of transferring between unrelated organisms (horizontal gene transfer). This is not a safe history: E. coli O157 is the recipient of many such transfers.

Consider ... The regulatory authorities concluded many years ago that operational transgenes might indeed transfer into microbes inside animals (and you) during digestion. This has since been proven to happen. Concern has so far focused only on the antibiotic-resistance genes often used during the transformation procedure. It has long been recognised that if these genes transferred into pathogens, the clinical efficacy of related antibiotics would clearly be compromised. But what about other transgenes?

Consider ... What would happen if a bacterium in your gut was exuding a ‘ribonuclease’ enzyme (often added to GM crops to aid cross-breeding)? This enzyme is designed to dissolve cells in the pollen-producing parts of the flower but could have destructive effects on animal cells.

Consider ... What would happen if a bacterium in your gut was exuding a Bt insecticidal toxin? These toxins are added to GM crops to attack insect gut cells, but are known to have adverse effects in humans. Huge numbers of different Bt-based toxins are being invented and inserted into GM crop plants. The genes for these will repeatedly pass through animal and human digestive systems where bacteria can acquire them. Theoretically, bacteria could eventually arise which can exude every Bt toxin ever invented.

Consider ... What would happen if a bacterium in your gut was exuding a drug acquired from GM ‘pharm’ crops?

Consider ... We know there is plenty of DNA which is naturally mobile in the genome, and that its movements are associated with disease processes. We don’t know if transgenic DNA has the potential to become one such mobile element, or to induce mobility.

Consider ... Bacterial and viral DNA are known to be able to trigger reactions in our immune systems. We also know that DNA from food is not completely digested, but can be absorbed and travel around the body: this means that our cells will be exposed to unusual, foreign, intact DNA. The possibility that the transgenes themselves could insert themselves in the human genome and generate harmful novel proteins inside us has been dismissed as far-fetched, because the DNA has been carefully re-designed for insertion and expression in plants. But, the small, non-gene parts of the novel DNA construct which promote gene activity are often very powerful, viral in nature and promiscuous in their action. These would wreak havoc within a human genome just by their presence.

The above points raise an important question. Are the possibilities of cancer, auto-immune reactions or tissue disease arising from such genome interference really so far-fetched? Our immune system has evolved to ward off viruses as disease-causing agents, to recognise food as being food, to recognise our own DNA as being ‘self’, and to react or not react accordingly . But, pieces of viral DNA could be disguised by their attachment to synthetic 'plant' DNA, or worse, disguised by their attachment to animal- or human-derived DNA. These could enter our cells unnoticed, or, could stimulate a catastrophic immune system reaction by their invasion of the genome.

To summarise the situation: the danger from the transfer of one type of transgene, antibiotic marker genes, has been acknowledged, while much greater potential dangers from other pieces of transgenic DNA moving into bacteria or into ourselves has been, illogically, ignored.

Is there any justification for making so many assumptions, ignoring the implications of what little knowledge we do have, and neglecting the research which would prove or disprove them?