Getting to the grist about GM (part 3)

My fellow blogger applpy at Thought + Food draws attention to a series of articles about genetic modification. That’s GM, also called genetic engineering or GE. It’s a kind of biotechnology.

These articles (see my ‘biotechnology’ tag) are by Nathanael Johnson at Grist. His third in this series is Genetic engineering vs. natural breeding: What’s the difference? Now we get to the grist.

Mr Johnson sensibly avoids a classic pro-GM error. I’ve heard it many times. ‘My sheepdog’s descended from wolves, and look! She’s not trying to kill the sheep! She doesn’t even look like a wolf. Must be genetically modified.’ No. Sheepdogs have been selectively bred, not genetically modified.

A decade or so ago, we in Europe talked about genetically engineered crops. There was a backlash, which continues. Now we Europeans get offered the less scary-sounding ‘genetic modification’ letting some people assume that it’s just a fancier kind of selective breeding. But no. GM is GE. In some parts of the world, including the United States, it’s still called GE. ‘Biotechnology’ is a broader word, including GM and other kinds of tech too.

With an open mind about GM, let’s see what Mr Johnson says. He tells us about interviewing Pamela Ronald of the Genetic Literacy Project. Dr Ronald is a scientist who blogs at Tomorrow’s Table. She believes that GE deserves a place in farming, in fact, that it deserves a place in organic farming.

It’s well worth reading Mr Johnson’s conversations with Dr Ronald and her technician. He found out that her work on rice (Oryza sativa) involves marker assisted selecton (MAS). MAS is the biotech that led me to ask whether GM is out of date. MAS is a faster and fancier kind of selective breeding. It’s selective breeding, helped along by a peek at the DNA, but without any splicing of genes.

My respect for Mr Johnson grew when I noticed how, in this article, he corrected his own error. He’d confused MAS with GM. Now, evidently, he understands that they’re different kinds of biotech.

I don’t wear slogan t-shirts so please don’t send me any! If I were that desperate to get down with the kids, my t-shirt could say ‘GM Crops – Not In My Back Yard’ on the front and ‘Marker Assisted Selection – I’m MASsively into MAS’ on the back.

Moving on from my thoughts of fashion disaster, Dr Ronald uses another kind of biotech too. She makes the DNA in rice cells mutate by exposing the cells to radiation.

Mutation is a natural process which generates nearly all of the variation that natural selection, and selective breeding, act on. Here are the kinds of mutation that happen. Left to themselves, crops would mutate slowly and most of the mutants wouldn’t be interesting. Then there’d be the occasional mutant that might change the face of farming.

When you irradiate cells in the right way (that is, without killing them), you get a lot of new mutants. Then you can choose the mutants you like. Here’s some science about mutation discovery for crop improvement. That peer reviewed article, by scientists in Britain, calls mutagenesis ‘an important tool in crop improvement… free of the regulatory restrictions imposed on genetically modified organisms.’

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But for Dr Ronald, speedy mutation and MAS aren’t enough. Free from the ‘regulatory restrictions’ of Europe, she’s at UC Davis in California. She can make GM crops, and she does. Mr Johnson doesn’t explain why she does this, when she has the tools of speedy mutation and MAS already to hand.

This isn’t Monsanto or any other commercial biotech giant. Dr Ronald says, ‘I’m at a university here, and we’re funded by the government… we have no private funding, and the rice we are developing is all for developing countries. We don’t make money off our discoveries.’ As for me, I’m a blogger in Britain. I won’t try to tell you whether to trust the US Government’s choices about research directions.

I’m quite inclined to trust Mr Johnson, though. His mind is open. Towards the end of his article, he explains the main kinds of GM that are done in Dr Ronald’s lab. He explains them neatly – read what he says if you wish. He then points out how much randomness there is. There’s randomness in conventional breeding. There’s randomness in irradiated mutagenesis. There’s randomness in GM. You can scroll down his article to a summary table produced ten years ago, by the United Kingdom’s GM Science Review Panel. That Panel ‘concluded that genetic engineering was no more likely to produce unintended consequences than conventional breeding’.

But the UK Panel also noted that, ‘A special feature of GM breeding is that it allows the transfer into crop plants of one or a few genes from what might be radically different organisms… This inevitably raises uncertainty about whether there are any novel genetic interactions and whether these are potentially harmful.’

Randomness. Uncertainty. Risk. Potential.

I like Mr Johnson’s conclusion in this, his third article about GM. ‘It makes no sense… to protest GMOs while accepting that irradiated organic mutants should be exempt from any special regulation. It makes no sense to try to ban all genetically engineered foods if we aren’t concerned about the rice-to-rice transfers that people like Ronald are doing… we have an important role to play in making sure the technology isn’t used inappropriately. But it’s not useful to flail blindly against something we don’t understand.’

This series of articles in Grist continues. I’m still reading.

About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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