Glyphosate global perspective

March 2016

A paper which puts the whole world-wide glyphosate situation into perspective has been published.  This summarises and graphically illustrates the trends in use of the herbicide since it was first commercialised in 1974 to the latest figures available, 2014.

Glyphosate - a developmental neurotoxin?

March 2016
Glyphosate protest: CC photo credit Corporate Europe Observatory on Flickr
Even before Nancy Swanson's investigations revealed a close parallel between glyphosate weedkiller usage and deaths from Parkinson's disease in the US [1], the herbicide had been found to trigger the cellular processes leading to natural death in rat nerve cells [2].  Swanson also noted the eerily close trajectories of rising glyphosate use with spiraling nervous-system problems such as autism, senile dementia and Alzheimer's disease.  After that, a study on bees concluded glyphosate impairs memory and associated learning [3].

Another ominous facet of glyphosate nuerotoxicity has been revealed by Argentinian scientists. Their study examined the effect of the herbicide on the development of rat embryonic nerve cells.

CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing

March 2016

GM is changing.  Forget shooting the genome to bits with a micro-blunderbuss in the hope that the novel DNA-bullets lodge somewhere useful.  Now genetic engineers have a simple, inexpensive and remarkably effective method for making specific DNA modifications. 

The latest from biotech is 'CRISPR/Cas9', a technique which needs little training and nothing too fancy or expensive in the way of laboratory equipment, and is rapidly eclipsing all other GM methods.

Climate-smart crops or profit-smart?

March 2016

Biotech industry claims that GM crops are climate-smart are not new.

Herbicide-tolerant crops have been successfully hyped as enabling no-till farming to promote carbon storage in the soil and saving carbon release from fossil fuels.  It's a good story, but doesn't stand up to scientific scrutiny: even without tillage, little carbon actually stays in the soil long enough to be considered sequestered [1], and all commercial-scale GM crops are inherently dependent on fossil-fuels to supply the necessary agri-chemicals and run all the machines.

Synbio bugs

March 2016

Back in 2010, the first 'creation' of a 'synthetic' organism was announced [1].

The 'synthetic organism' was mycoplasma, the smallest known cell, many times smaller than a bacterium.  Like all such microbes, mycoplasma don't have a defined cell nucleus like higher organisms, but have a single DNA-bearing structure ('chromosome').

What was actually synthesised was replica DNA of a sample mycoplasma.  This had been manufactured in computer-designed chunks, then assembled into a chromosome in yeast cells and inserted into a mycoplasma cell whose chromosome had been extracted.  The synbio-bug grew much as usual.

German herd sickened by Bt silage

March 2016

One GM-crop enthusiast in Germany has tried it, tested it, looked at the outcome, and changed his mind.

Farmer Glöckner is an experienced dairy farmer with an award for high productivity and a masters degree in Agricultural Sciences. He was one of the first to work with the biotech industry and to trial GM crops. From 1998 to 2002, he grew Syngenta's Bt176 GM maize and prepared silage from it to feed his herd. Progressively increasing amounts of the maize were included in the feed, so that by 2000, the maize content of the feed (40% of the total) was entirely Bt.

Glöckner kept meticulous records, was quick to notice changes in his herd, and quick to call for veterinary and laboratory support. When things had clearly gone wrong, he sued Syngenta and received partial compensation.

What had gone wrong with the Bt-fed herd has been summarised and reported in the scientific literature by Professor Giles-Éric Séralini, a scientist who has long had doubts about industry claims of GM feed safety.

Synthetic science

March 2016

New varieties of biotechnology, each more extreme than the one before, are emerging from the lab at breakneck speed.
These have come to be known as 'synthetic biology', a curious name (see below) for a nebulous field, which seems to refer to any means of artificial reconstruction of life. It encompasses anything minorly more sophisticated than old-fashioned GM, to wholesale changes in metabolism, cell components, populations and ecosystems.

What is 'synthetic biology'?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'biology' as the science of physical life, and 'science' as systematic knowledge. This makes 'synthetic biology' the synthetic science of life.

We are, indeed, talking about an entirely synthetic branch of science, but it seems that the systematic knowledge part actually refers to synthetic life. This makes 'synthetic biology' the synthetic science of synthetic life.

Perhaps 'biological synthology' describes this latest biotech venture most accurately.

The synthetic answer to a future world in which today's trends extrapolate into ever-more mouths to feed and ever-scarcer arable land, is to reconfigure crop plants to grow better.