Tuesday, January 21, 2014

UST GS: Genetic Pollution - Littering of Engineered Genes

Dr Abe V Rotor
Living with Nature School on Blog
Paaralang Bayan sa Himpapawid (People's School-on-Air) with Ms Melly C Tenorio
738 DZRB AM Band, 8 to 9 evening class Monday to Friday

Lecture on B
ioethics in biology,De La Salle University DasmariƱas, and UST Graduate School. 
 Genetically modified sea creatures, painting in acrylic by AVR

Genetic engineering is creating genes and genetic materials that threaten to pollute natural genetic pools worldwide. It actually has begun. Once an organism acquires a foreign gene - now a GMO (genetically modified organism) - it becomes a permanent source of genetic contamination and pollution.
     In nature the path of gene transfer is precise and specific along parental lineage and is strictly exclusive within the species.  But not until man was able to crack the code of heredity in the later part of the last century.

     With biotechnology today we can now modify the genetic material of an organism, making it possible to transfer genes across barriers that normally separate species, families, classes, phyla and sub-kingdoms. A classical example - Bt corn, the first commercial GMO - was created by transferring a gene of a bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis, which belongs to Subkingdom Archaebacteria) to corn (Subkingdom Plantae). Never in history, in all man’s attempts, has this feat of combining genetic characters of two extremely unrelated organisms – a prokaryote (an organism with unorganized nucleus, a characteristic of bacteria) and a eukaryote (one with well-organized nucleus, characteristic of higher life forms) - achieved.

     Bt corn has paved the way to the production of more GMOs. Genetically engineered potato, soybean, and tomato are now freely planted on two-thirds of US farms and are pouring out into millions of small farms over the world.

      This new corn was engineered in the laboratory on the premise of reducing dependence on costly and hazardous chemical pesticides, by inserting into the corn genetic composition an insect-repelling protein snipped from the DNA of Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium known to cause epidemic among caterpillars. The new corn, it is claimed by its creators, has acquired the resistance from the bacterium to protect the corn crop against the destructive corn borer (Pyrausta nobilales), corn earworm (Heliothes armigera), and other Lepidopterans, the family of silkworm, butterflies and moths.

      What the creators of this “Franken crop” (named after Frankenstein, a novel written by Shelley in the early 18th century about a laboratory-made monster) are boasting about is that, “Just leave the corn out there on the field and it will defend itself against the onslaught of pest.”  Thus there is no need of spraying hazardous pesticide on the corn crop.

      Undoubtedly the world is entering into another Agricultural Revolution, which, unlike in the past two agricultural revolutions (expansion of the frontiers of production, and increased production through the advancement in science technology, respectively) is highly controversial and that it potentially carries long-term global consequences more potent than any weapon of war.
     You can stop splitting the atom; you can stop visiting the moon; you can stop using aerosols; you may even decide not to kill an entire population by the use of few bombs. But you can not recall a new form of life. Once you have constructed a viable cell carrying a plasmid DNA into which a piece of  DNA has been spliced, it will survive you and your children’s children. An irreversible attack on the biosphere is something unheard of, so unthinkable to previous generations, that I could only wish that mine had not been guilty of.
                                                      (Erwin Chargoff as cited by Solangi and Perilla)
The GMO Controversy, Ad Veritatem
      Why Genetic engineering in the first place?

      Many scientists and leaders believe that it is the ultimate solution to the burgeoning problems of providing a spiraling population, now 6.1 billion people, with adequate food and nutrition, better health and living conditions.  Here is the rationale of their contention.

1.     Transgenic animals - With the initial success of cloning animals (Dolly the sheep is the first cloned animal), the idea to produce more transgenic animals in order to improve breeds and increase production of meat, milk and other animal products. The long list includes cows, sheep, and goats, which are very important sources of animal protein in most countries.

     These  transgenic animals are likely to “pollute” the natural gene pool of non-transgenic animals as they mate and produce offspring on the farm and in the wild.  As their offspring reproduce – so with the succeeding generations -  the transmission and spread of the engineered genes becomes unstoppable.  

2.     Increased crop production – Genetically engineered plants improve harvest through selection and combination of yield-enhancing genes, a process that cannot be done by conventional means. GM crops are also tailored for marginal lands, such as those affected by salinity, and prone to drought and other calamities.

     Like transgenic animals, the transfer of pollen of GE-plants to non-GE  plants will definitely contaminate the natural gene pool of the latter, in effect creating hybrids of varying combinations of genes of both GE-plants and non-GE plants. 

3.     Improved Nutrition – According to the GM proponents, the staple crops of the world, mainly rice, wheat and corn, can be improved not only in yield but in nutritional value as well by packing more proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.  GE-soybeans have been modified to contain more protein, while GE-rice presently being developed at IRRI contains carotene and vitamins that prevent blindness. Likewise increasing iron content in plants through genetic engineering could be the answer in preventing anemia.

     There will come a time when it becomes difficult and uncertain to measure the nutrient value of plants, say soybean contaminated with genetically engineered soybean. What is the protein content of a GE- and non-GE soybean hybrid on the third generation?  We might be taking in from GE-crops nutrients, vitamins, minerals and the like, which our body may not actually need – or compatible of, thus resulting to allergy.

     Based on the principles of crop production, increased protein, carbohydrate, or oil, in these GE-crops means corollary increase in soil nutrient requirements.  Which means there will be need for subsidy in terms of  fertilizers, pesticides, and the like.  It is possible that these GE-plants are no longer adapted to the habitat of their original kin – thus requiring the revision of our present knowledge in biology and agriculture. 

4.     Better health – Biopharming is the newest application of genetic engineering in the field of medicine and pharmacology.  By splicing into food plants certain drug genes, we will be hitting two birds with one stone, so to speak. Vaccine-containing food plants will simplify delivery and administration of drugs. We will simply eat a biopharmed plant that contains a specific drug and get well from an ailment as a result of the implanted gene. People would be saved from costly medicine and many will vastly benefit from this new natural healing technology.

     But how can we measure the dosage of the implanted drug?  In the first place, how do we know if a plant we are eating contains drugs, and what kind of drugs are these? By introducing unnecessary drugs into our body unknowingly, the effect may prove harmful.  What is the idea of “curing a disease” which you do not have?

5.     Fewer chemicals – In Bt corn the built-in resistance to certain insects means lower pesticide requirement, thus lesser cost of production and a healthier environment. This claim also applies to herbicide-resistant crops.  With this premise GE will ultimately revolutionize plant pathology with the same principle as applied in medicine. The idea is to produce genetically engineered plants to resist deadly pathogens such as tungro in rice, ring spot in papaya, rust in cereals, and the like.

     There is no permanent resistance in organisms – for both host and pathogen.  Pests – from virus to bacteria, insects to nematodes – develop biological specialization, which means that resistance can be developed in the genes of these pests by continuous mutation. On the part of a host plant or animal, there is such a thing as “genetic decline”.  For example hybrid corn should not be planted twice – much less thrice – over.  It is because its hybrid vigor deteriorates through repeated planting. Therefore, Bt corn may be resistant to corn borer now, but not in next year or later, for both reasons.

6.     Conservation – In Jurassic Park, the movie showed the possibility to re-create an extinct animal from its DNA fossil. With genetic engineering, we might be able to propagate endangered species outside of their natural habitat, and even revive the sleeping genie in the DNA of long lost species. A greater part of this contention is fiction.  We doubt if we will ever succeed in resurrecting an organism, which has been extinct for thousands, if not millions of years ago, out of its DNA in its fossil.

     Nature has its way of preserving ancient organisms.  Blue green algae like Spirulina is three billions years old and it has remained virtually unchanged. The Coelacanth fish thought to have been extinct 60 millions years ago is very much alive at the craggy sea floor of Madagascar. Science has just  barely scratched the surface in understanding “living” fossils.  It seems very remote to resurrect past organisms from their fossil remains.

The Coming Age of GMO

     Let us look into the following scenarios:

·        In the United States, borrowed genes from Brazil nut to increase the amino acid content resulted in the development of genetically modified soybean. The resulting soybean now carries higher amino acid all right, but in churns out also chemicals that can trigger allergies to nut-sensitive consumers.

·        “Down with the clown,” protested farmers at McDonalds stores in France against GM beef and potato. Although the European Union has blocked importation of some GM products, it now requires foods that contain engineered DNA to be labeled as such.

·        US sale of GM seeds by Monsanto (US) and Novartis (Swiss producer of Gerber baby foods) rose from $75 million to $ 1.5 B in the last five years, and GM technology is just beginning. Million of hectares are now growing genetically changed seeds of various crops in the US. 

·        Around 30 % of US dairy cows are injected with the recombinant bovine growth hormone that boosts the production of milk. The hormone is made with genetically engineered bacteria. And 75% of all cheese contains chymosin that is produced with bacteria that have been genetically engineered.

·        Now consider these: tomatoes juice from tomatoes containing enzymes from the arctic flounder - an attempt to help crops withstand low temperature; pork loins from hogs treated with human growth hormones to help them get bigger faster; and squash inoculated with watermelon-virus genes to make the squash virus resistant.

·        Corn that contains a firefly gene provides a phosphorescent marker even when mixed with other foods. Another marker, a gene-carrying green phosphorescent in jellyfish transferred in mice, makes mice glow in the dark.

·        The popularity of BT tomato (“FlavrSavr”), the first genetically altered food crop, ignited a chain of other GM crops from high protein beans and grains, caffeine less coffee beans, potato that soaks up less fat during frying, to strawberry with more natural sugar. And there are dozens of gene-spliced food crops in laboratories and greenhouses ready to be released. These include squash, melon, carrots, onions, peppers, apples and the like.

 Destruction of the coral reef with introduced GMO predators which disturbed the ecological balance.  Acrylic painting by AVR

     Why does it appear easy for government to allow the production and distribution of genetically engineered plants and animals? In the US for one the government sees GM components as mere additives. That is why, virtually anyone can load a fruit, vegetable baby food, or any simple meal with DNA engineered tricks. Arroz caldo from GM rice with borrowed chicken gene, anyone?

     If you don’t see butterflies in the garden anymore that is reminiscent of Rachel Carson’s  “Silent Spring”, blame it to the Bt in corn or rice.  The  bacterium is a scourge to insects belonging to order Lepidoptera which includes one of the world’s best known and most loved insects, the flamboyant orange-and-black monarch butterflies which can travel an incredible distance of 1,600 miles in their migratory flight. The message of the monarch butterflies is clear: Even the most well intentioned biological technologies are without any risk.

     Remember Dolly, the sheep that became famous as the first cloned animal?  She aged rapidly, faster than her parent and died early. It is because clones live only the remaining years of their parent’s lives. They grow old before their time. And if any human being might like to get cloned, he should think twice. He will live and end up with a different world, missing the joys of childhood, the discovery in adolescence, the adventures of youth, responsibility in adulthood, and fulfillment in ripe age. The life of a cloned human being is likely one that is biological - birth, growth and senility packed in a small time capsule – just like Dolly, the sheep.  

      Genetic pollution is characterized in these premises: 

1.       The GE organisms will become a permanent source of genetic contamination and pollution, which will be recycled virtually without end.

2.       New bacteria, viruses, prions (pathogenic proteins) and other pathogens, are more virulent, not only by their infective nature, but through by mutation or reactivation of dormant and harmless ones.

3.       Antibiotic resistant makers (ARMs) in GM crops can be transferred to other bacteria, including the harmful ones. Right now we are unwittingly creating resistant bacteria through abuse of antibiotics. These resistant bacteria could become gene sources of virulent forms.

4.       Resistance is developed among populations of insects, pathogens, insects and weeds under field condition as engineered genes are indiscriminately disseminated. While the pest-resistant Bt cotton or the Bt corn remain the same, the pests themselves are continuously undergoing biological specialization, thus, after repeated planting, the Bt crop is overtaken by the newly acquired resistance of the pest rendering the crop susceptible like any ordinary corn.

5.       GMOs may exhibit increased allergenic tendencies, toxicity, or altered nutritional value. They may also exhibit mutations, which are errors that can occur in the sequence or reading of the DNA within a cell. Altering regulatory functions may create new components or alter levels of existing components of an organism.

6.       Genetic manipulation often introduces proteins from organisms never used as foods, many of which could be a source of new allergens.

7.       Resistance genes, often used as markers to select transgenic cells, may transfer to people or other organisms and aggravate health problems.  Viral genes in plants engineered for virus resistance may recombine with invading microbes to produce new and more virulent hybrids. Through the same process, superweeds can evolve, and spread to neighboring fields and upset environmental balance.

8.       Pest resistance results through continued exposure to crops that make their own pesticides, causing pests to become immune and render the toxin ineffective.

Mechanics of Genetic Pollution

      Let us examine how a gene or a gene material can pollute the natural genetic composition of species. First, let me point out that all living things are made up of a complex genetic structure recently identified as DNA (Deoxyribose nucleic acid), which are organized into genes.  It is the gene that is responsible in encoding proteins that control the expression of a trait in the organism. Traits are transmitted by parents to their offspring. They range from color of skin to intelligence of an individual. Tallness and shortness among garden pea plants were among the genetic traits experimented by Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, some two hundred years ago.

     In the open field the pollen of Bt corn is disseminated by wind, insects, among other means.  Even for several kilometers away, the pollen of this GMO can effectively pollinate and fertilize cornfields irrespective of variety.  In the process the transmitted Bt component now becomes a permanent genetic material in the polluted corn, which is the immediate offspring.  The offspring will in turn, transmit the borrowed gene to the next generation.  As the process is repeated season in and out, the Bt pollen is indiscriminately scattered.  Here is one kind of pollution that cannot just be picked up and burned, or contained and detoxified.  There is virtually no end to genetic pollution since it is transferred through gametes, even with just one of the combining gamete carries the gene-pollutant.    
     This new development opens a controversy that touches morality and ethics. It opens a floodgate for researchers to create new types, varieties, hybrids, and even new organisms, which all the more become a serious ethico-moral matter.

Cross-species Breeding

       There have been countless attempts to create an organism by breeding two different organisms with little success. The most celebrated case is the mule, which is the offspring of an ass and a mare, or a horse and a she-ass.  But the mule is incapable of self-perpetuation, and must therefore depend on the inter-crossing of its two different parents to create one.

     Similar limited success is shown in zebronkey, a cross of the zebra a donkey, and peapple (pear and apple). Unlike the mule, the zebronkey is a freak, which means that was breed entirely by chance, so with the peapple.  In the case of plants, they can be propagated by vegetative means, such as  grafting and budding, similarly by cutting and marcotting, and in the process preserve the new genetic composition.  This is not the case with higher animals.

     These cases illustrate how nature protects organisms from the incursion of genes outside their own kind, a key to keep the integrity of the species.  In short, this is how strict nature’s genetic housekeeping is.  As a general rule, genes just cannot be littered around, and even if organisms happen to pick them up, these genes do not pollute their genetic composition. Even the dog which is openly bred resulting in many breeds today, will remain as a dog, Canis domesticus. This is true with every living species. 

The Case of the Living Christmas Tree

      In an agro-industrial fair I attended when I was a student, I was amazed to see a “living Christmas Tree.” On closer examination the tree is a full grown eggplant, breast high, its branches were each of a kind – tomato, pepper, potato, and tobacco. Except the tobacco and potato, surprisingly the branches had fruits on them. The specimen drew a lot of curiosity especially on my part who grew up on the farm and had not seen one occurring in nature.

     “It is an old technique,” the horticulture professor who made the living potpourri explained, “You can graft plants that are genetically compatible.  All these plants joined together belong to one family – Solanaceace.”

     It means then that certain members of a family can be vegetatively grown together without becoming genetically altered. So the tomato branch produces tomato fruits which taste exactly like tomato. This is the same with the eggplant branch.

     Again, this is to illustrate that Nature has its own safety mechanism among plants, as well as animals and the simpler forms of life, like algae – so that the genes are not altered in the open and in the wild through cell-to-cell contact. Thus in the field different plants can live together without “genetically polluting” each another.

     Through vegetative means of reproduction, compatibility is within the variety or species as a rule. Among species it is only possible to a limited extent, those belonging to the same family. Budding among the members of the citrus family (Rutaceae) is a common horticultural practice. So with members of the cucurbit family (Cucurbitaceae).  One application of this practice of inter species grafting is between the kondol (as stock because of its sturdiness) and watermelon as scion. This graft extends the longevity of the watermelon so that it can produce more fruits even through off-season when the commodity is more profitable. 

        Genetic Engineering Versus Tissue-Organ Transplantation

     The difference of genetic engineering with tissue-organ transplantation is that GE introduces a gene, or genes, or a snip or a ribbon of DNA, into a recipient. While in the latter, there is no gene or genetic material involved in the process. Analogously, a tissue or an organ is the scion while the recipient is the stock, if we were to compare the process with the grafting of mango.

         The two parts – the transplant and the recipient, the stock and scion – will never mix genetically, that is, each part will carry their respective sets of genes. That is why, if you have a paho mango (stock) grafted with carabao mango (scion), the fruit which develops from the scion will be of the carabao variety, while any fruit emanating from the stock (if it is not removed) will be paho.     

        Compatibility is between and among their cells, and not in their genes or DNA – unlike in genetic engineering. What is compatible in tissue-organ transplantation is in the way their cells assume physiologic activities like growth and development, metabolism, response to stimuli, and to a certain extent, reproduction. The transplanted tissue or organ is now part of the recipient organism, which with the new part, can function more efficiently, and perhaps save it from destruction or death. 

     Genetic pollution is in its early stage, but like the conventional types of pollution - domestic and industrial – it is expected to grow worse as progress continues.

      These are vital considerations to ponder:

1.     Genetic pollution is the by-product of genetic engineering.  The combination of genes to create desired traits is virtually limitless.  Possibilities are everywhere because of man’s craving for new things that living organisms can give – from antibiotics to increased production of food. In the process these engineered genes can be indiscriminately spread and picked up by other organisms.

2.     The virtually endless possibilities in Genetic Engineering do not only create new characters – it can lead to the development of new life forms heretofore unknown in the natural world. There is a possibility that these life forms will not fit into the natural order and classification of living things.

3.     Genetic Engineering in the hands of terrorists and irresponsible persons is extremely dangerous.  Historically, biological warfare aims at creating virulent forms of pathogens directed to man, his livestock and crops. The benefits of this new science can be overshadowed by the dangers it poses.

4.     Genetic engineering destroys the ecosystems. It will disturb the integrity of the food web and food pyramid. Gene pollution could expand to a proportion that does not only affect particular species of organism and their population, and the ecosystem.

5.     Once as ecosystem such as a lake or a forest is disturbed, it losses homeostasis. Genetically engineered organisms become more dependent on humans, necessitating man’s intervention and management that is indeed very expensive. Even then, it cannot efficiently simulate homeostasis – dynamic balance which only nature can provide.

6.     Genetic pollution is going to be deleterious to health of the individual and the human population.  If this is so then we disturb the working of our institutions and the society as a whole.

7.     Genetic pollution will disturb if not change the course of evolution.  Will humankind ultimately take the path of “auto-evolution”?  And will it set also the direction and path of evolution of other living creatures?  To what extent can we take into our hands Creation, the role of God and only God?

             In support of deployment of genetically engineered organisms and products, numerous arguments are easily shown to be fallacious.  (Solangi AH and MV Perilla, Some Concerns on GMOs, Ad Veritatem 2002)

      The first fallacy - Some scientists advance arguments which dispose researchers, producers and others to support the current rapid deployment of genetically engineered life forms.

     The second fallacy - Modification of genomes occurs regularly through biological process such as natural selection, and transfer of genes through viral means.

     The third fallacy - Genomes of domestic plants or animals are vast complexes of genetic material. Modification of genomes through insertion of one or few genes is an extremely small change. Thus, it is acceptable for us to engineer such changes.

     The fourth fallacy - If we don’t introduce technologies based on genetic engineering other people in other countries will do it, thus, it is acceptable perhaps even necessary for us to do so.

 A fifth fallacy - On behalf of rapidly going deployment of technologies based on genetic engineering, we are forced to do so as a consequence of economic factors.

     Solangi and Perilla continued, and I quote:

1.     Genetic engineering (GE) as applied to crops is a very powerful tool for improving (but not increasing) food production. This is because crops become either pest resistant or pesticide-resistant or both, resulting in less damage and therefore higher yet yields.

2.     The hazards of GMOs to biodiversity, food safety, human and animal health, and demand a moratorium on environmental releases in accordance with the precautionary principle.

3.     GE is not the best method for improving food production. It does not increase yield; it endangers the environment; and it does not reduce poverty of the poor nations.

4.     The adverse effects of eating genetically modified (GM) food are unknown. Existing evidence shows that these are dangerous.

5.     There are interlocking interests of GM companies and chemical companies especially in developing countries.

      In a book this author wrote, The Living With Nature Handbook, he stated some recommendations which support those of Solangi and Perilla.

1.     The key to the regeneration of indigenous biological diversity on all three levels – genetic, species and ecosystem – is in the revival of traditional, organic farming methods which have through centuries demonstrated the sustainability and productivity of agriculture.  Western monoculture techniques – and now biotechnology – are destroying the integrity of sustainable productivity.

2.     There should be a stronger vigilance against biopiracy – stealing of indigenous genes by multinational companies and patenting them in their own countries. These genes are potentially valuable materials to be used in genetic engineering.

3.     In the meantime, labeling should be required for all foods, which contain any genetically modified ingredient, even only one or where genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been used in the production of the food.  There should be a thorough review or study of genetically engineered foods and a moratorium on the release of uncertified\unreviewed genetically modified organisms to protect health.

4.     There is need of monitoring and surveillance programs concerning the environment. Consumers and producers in the Philippines must be organized and mobilized against GMOs. Arbitration by CGIAR centers at the international level and by national R&D centers at a country level, with harmonized activities at international, regional and country levels. Intensified networking and information sharing and more coordinated efforts among various peasants, consumers, environmentalists and religious organizations and other NGOs worldwide.

     Genetic engineering is indeed the newest generator of the worst kind of   pollution heretofore unknown and untold, that if we cannot contain it immediately, will endanger not humankind but the whole biosphere to ultimate extinction. ~                                                           x   x   x

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