Systems biology predicts formaldeyhde in GM

September 2015

The latest approach to studying life-processes is 'systems biology'. This provides a means to create a holistic model by integrating all the existing data describing individual parts of biochemical pathways.

Systems biology involves using a computer-generated simulation of biochemical networks. Because it can be used to predict the harmful effects which might arise from perturbations, it can be used to give an indication of future experimental requirements. Such a guide is especially useful when the substance in question is difficult to measure.

The method has been employed to investigate 'C1' metabolism, an essential process in all organisms which provides single-carbon units for synthesising the biochemicals of life, such as protein, DNA, and many vital molecular modifying factors.

One process which involves 'C1` metabolism is the detoxification of formaldehyde. In pure chemical form, this is commonly known as embalming fluid, but in living cells minute amounts are produced naturally during several biochemical reactions. Because this by-product is so toxic*, the formation and detoxification reactions of formaldehyde must be tightly regulated by the cell to prevent its accumulation.

*Formaldehyde is a mutagen, a suspected carcinogen, and induces protein abnormalities.

A paper on systems biology modelling applied to GM maize and soya suggests the possibility of something rather disturbing. The non-GM plants maintain formaldehyde at healthy near-zero levels. However, the metabolic perturbations present in GM plants are predicted to accumulate formaldehyde.

The authors comment that their simulations suggest how a very small genetic change can create large and systemic changes in molecular systems equilibria.

Their finding also has grave implications for the US regulators' use of 'substantial equivalence' as a basis of GM food safety assessment.

Substantial equivalence was developed in the 1970s to assess new medical devices. Medical devices can easily be shown to do 'much the same thing' or not as the case may be, but the very complexity of food and nutrition should have put these in different league altogether. Nevertheless, by limiting the comparison to generalised nutritional qualities, and neglecting to establish any definition or benchmarks, the concept has been seamlessly transferred to the regulation of GM foods.

As the systems biologists point out, if formaldehyde had been used as a criterion for 'equivalence', GM plants are unlikely to have been deemed comparable to their non-GM cousins.


Back in 2013, an unpublished report was circulating claiming significant quantities of formaldehyde had been found in GM maize [1,2]. Because the figures presented in this report were highly abnormal for any maize, commentators were certain they'd been derived from soil samples, not from plants. 

The mystery of how these data came about, or how they came to be corrupted, has never been explained. However, it seems unlikely the report was entirely bogus, because, if someone was intent on faking results, they would at least have made them believable. Perhaps before we dismiss them entirely as an 'April fool' we should do some more testing. 



  • V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai, Prabhakar Deonikar, 2015, Do GMOs Accumulate Formaldehyde and Disrupt Molecular Systems Equilibria? Sysems Biology May Provide Answers, Agricultural Sciences 6
  • P. Deonikar, et al., 2015, Discovery of Key Molecular Pathways of C1 Metabolism and Formaldehyde Detoxificaiton in Maize through a Systematic Bioinformatics Literature Review, Agricultural Sciences 6
  • Santhiya Kothandaram, et al,, 2015, In Silico Modeling of C1 Metabolism, American Journal of Plant Sciences 6
  • Mrudhuula Mohan, et al., 2015, Integrative Modeling of Oxidative Stress and C1 Metabolism Reveals Upregulation of Formaldehyde and Downregulation of Glutathione, American Journal of Plant Sciences 6
  • Study Concludes FDA GMO Approval Process is Flawed, Outdated, and Unscientific, PR Newswire, 14.07.15
  • Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, "Stunning" Difference of GM from non-GM Corn", Institute of Science in Society Report 22.04.13
  • Greg Lardy, Feeding Corn to Beef Cattle, North Dakota State University, January 2013
  • Zen Honeycutt, More info on 2012 Corn Comparison Report, Moms Across America, 12.04.15
  • Do GM soybean plants accumulate formaldehyde, GM Watch 14.07.15

Photo credit: "In the corn field" by Lars Plougmann - originally posted to Flickr as In the corn field. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

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