Rigging the science (and the regulations)

March 2019

Scientists recognise three pillars of data considered key to the judgement of whether a substance might cause, or contribute to, cancer, namely laboratory animal experiments, gene disruption assays, and epidemiological studies. These pillars respectively show that the test substance can be linked to cancer in mammalian models, that there's a demonstrable mechanism for cancerous cell formation, and that there are signs of real-life cancers in an exposed population.

In 2015, the International Assessment for Research on Cancer (IARC) examined glyphosate-based herbicides which are used on most GM crops [1]. It found "sufficient" evidence in animal studies, "strong" evidence of cellular and genetic damage of a kind known to induce cancer, and a suggestion of an association with cancer in a large US farm study (the Agricultural Health Study). The latter is on-going, and the authors indicated that the suggested link "should be followed up as more cases occur" over time [2].

Predictably, Big Biotech rushed its damage-limitation machine into action, persuading willing regulators to accept its own, industry-style, science in lieu of the peer-reviewed science assessed by the IARC. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accordingly pronounced glyphosate "not likely" to cause cancer.

Gut health alert

March 2019

Regular reports in the media point to the importance of what's living inside our guts to the health of the rest of our body, and our mind.

Our innards contain a wealth of diverse and interacting microbes, known collectively as the 'microbiome'. An unhealthy microbiome has been linked to Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, cancer, asthma, infection, diarrhoea, and depression in humans. In bees (which, unlike humans, can be subject to experimentation), a healthy microbiome seems necessary for normal growth, normal metabolism, normal life-span, and resistance to pathogens.

Some vital nutrients and healthful substances (such as anti-inflammatories) are generated by the life in the gut.

Rigging the regulations (and the science)

March 2019

New GMO blockbusters are predicted to include animals, algae and gene drives. These will be controversial, and the biotech industry knows it.

Before these new GM products can be moved forward, the priority is "a pacified regulatory environment" (Latham). And, what better way to achieve this than to take over GM regulation from the inside.

Populating GM assessment bodies with biotech industry employees and close collaborators is successfully hijacking the process from the start.

Natural excuses to avoid GM safety testing

March 2019

The biotech lobby is coming up with all sorts of fancy arguments to avoid regulation of new DNA-altering techniques which don't involve the insertion of novel genes (protein-coding DNA) into an organism.

Industry-led claims abound that small mutations are naturally present in all organisms, as is the presence of horizontal gene transfer between organisms. The story continues to say that because it is equivalent to 'natural', edited DNA is nothing to worry about. It goes on: organisms arising from intentional DNA-editing are similar to those produced by old, random mutagenesis techniques (such as irradiation). Since the latter have never been regulated, there's no reason to do so with the 'new' version. Moreover, DNA-edited organisms are so 'natural' that their identification is impossible and they are, therefore, untraceable, making regulation impossible to enforce. And, even if the changes are found, no one can tell if the mutation is a result of a natural DNA mutation or a deliberate one. In fact, in our Environment Secretary's view, since Mother Nature is already giving us genetic mutations and horizontal gene transfer, biotech scientists are merely giving Her a helping hand.

All this 'reasoning', however, seems to be more to do with commercial expediency than with science.

Engineering the name

March 2019

'Engineer' means construct according to a design: it's something humans do. The design and construction of DNA is chemical engineering: it uses computers, lab equipment, and a lot of fancy enzymes. Lately, the DNA inside a living cell can also be re-designed and re-constructed.

Sadly, all this DNA fiddling has now got so many different names that the basic artificial alteration of life is getting lost in the semantic clutter.

We started off with 'genetic engineering' when the engineered DNA formed a 'gene' (a protein-coding unit). This was followed by 'transgenesis, cisgenesis and intragenesis (depending on where the novel gene originated), and 'genetic modification' (because it sounds less scary). Recently, the Americans hit on the term 'bio-engineering' [1], and there are also anti-sense (back-to-front) genes which block the expression of right-way-round genes. So far, that's seven names just for sticking in an extra bit of DNA.

Then, things moved on with 'gene-editing', a.k.a. 'GM2.0' or 'new GM', which depending on the technique used, can be referred to as ZNF-1, ZNF-2, ZNF-3, TALENs, Meganucleases, CRISPR/Cas, CRISPR/Cas9, ODM, RTDS [2]. This got so complicated that they all got grouped together as New Breeding Techniques or NBTs, as a catch-all phrase for a plethora of molecular nuts and bolts to change life. If you're counting, that's some twenty names for DNA engineering.

Our CRISPR food future

March 2019

DuPont Pioneer scientists published a paper in 2017 which gives an insight into where the biotech crop market is planning to go next. This study demonstrated the "utility" of the CRISPR-Cas9 system [1] in editing maize DNA for breeding drought-tolerant crops.

The study focused on a 'key' gene which controls stress tolerance in maize by altering the plant's sensitivity to the plant hormone, ethylene. When this gene is active, the cells of the plant get bigger and multiply more. Under stress, however, plants tend to conserve their resources, the gene is switched off, and growth is reduced. By adding an artificial 'on-switch', promoter 'ARGOS8', the gene can be rendered uncontrollably over-active, thus overcoming the plant's natural reaction and increasing the yield despite the adverse environmental conditions. Enter the CRISPR-Cas9 trick to insert an artificial version of the ARGOS8 promoter DNA.