GM enzymes

November 2016
Brewery: Photo Creative Commons
Most of us have direct or indirect experience of allergy. For example: a skin or asthmatic reaction from clothes or bedding washed in certain detergents (no matter how well they've been rinsed); a reaction to perfumes or scented toiletries; digestive upsets from mass-produced breads and baked goods. These three very distinct classes of product have one thing in common: all of them are manufactured with novel industrial enzymes produced by GM microbes.

Enzymes are large, complex, proteins which induce chemical changes without being altered themselves. Many of them are biologically destructive, for instance, the digestive enzymes in your gut which break down animal and plant matter. In the past, people have never been exposed to significant levels of single enzymes in food, drink, air or clothing.

Modern enzyme technology has meant food- and drink-processing as never before, plus a wealth of novel substances to supply the materials-, pharmaceutical-, photographic-, cosmetic- and cleaning-industries (see note below).

All these products, which constitute a $10 billion industry, are manufactured courtesy of enzymes from GM microbes. 

If this is news to you, that's probably because, in both the EU and the USA, substances produced by a live organism are classified as 'natural' even if that organism is a GM one which would never dream of producing any such enzyme in the wild. Despite the fact that enzymes are known to be allergenic, this means that they aren't subject to safety assessment as 'novel' foods and substances.

Belatedly, the science on real-world effects of GM enzymes is being carried out.

A pilot study which tested workers in food-, chemical-, detergent-, and pharmaceutical-factories, found blood reactions (antibodies) to workplace-specific GM enzymes in 23% of them. A sub-group with known work-related respiratory symptoms had strongly correlated blood reactions (antibodies) to the GM enzymes they'd been exposed to.

Because of the nature of enzymes, these findings may be an underestimate of the real-world ongoing harm to health from novel enzymes.

In the factory, the risk of allergens can be managed by good occupational hygiene practice, but what
of the product's end-user who is eating or wearing it?

In the study, only acute immune-reactions were measured. Chronic effects, as as Irritable Bowel Syndrome or autoimmune diseases, are insidious, and can be much more damaging.

Blood reactions to a protein can only be detected if the detailed structure of the protein as presented to the body is known. Enzymes are large, complex proteins which can adopt varying three-dimensional configurations, can associate with varying chemical groups, and can have varying sub-sections. Cross-reactions between different allergenic proteins are well recognised. Factory workers are relatively easy to test because it's clear what enzyme(s) they've been exposed to and for how long. Similar allergenic effects in the general population are inevitably disguised by, for example, varying exposure, cross-reactions with other substances, and underlying health issues.

The pilot study was hampered by commercial secrecy which limited access to data on the novel enzymes, prevented identification of the enzyme structure, and made testing reactions to many of them impossible. Commercial diagnostic tests for routine allergy surveillance, even of factory workers, are lacking.

In conclusion, the authors state:
"Our data confirm ... genetically engineered enzymes are potent allergens eliciting immediate-type sensitisation." 
The variety of GM enzymes with potential sensitising properties on the market is now in the thousands.


Time to tell your MP, MEPs, and MSP that:
  1. Neither GM bugs nor anything they produce is natural.
  2. As the authors of the study on GM enzymes stress:  "The assessment of allergenicity should be mandatory for all new products. No reports may indicate no tests rather than no effect. Enzymes should be tested like any other potentially hazardous chemical."

Note: Examples of known enzyme applications 

Several enzymes are added to flour to accelerate the baking process and change the properties of the product. Aroma and flavouring in 'healthy' low-fat foods, which otherwise the consumer wouldn't like very much. Protein pre-digestion of baby foods. Many enzymes are used to make ingredients for the brewing industry. Contact lens cleaners.

  • Lygia T. Budnik, Sensitising effects of genetically modified enzymes used in flavour, fragrance, detergence and pharmaceutical production: cross-sectional study, British Medical Journal, 21.09.16
  • Haroon Siddique, GMO enzymes used food and cleaning products "are potent allergens", warns study, Guardian, 21.09.16
  • Artificial enzymes used in wide range of household products are "potent allergens", British Medical Journal

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