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What is GMO? Should you be bothered by its use?

As you may know, it is possible to “engineer” DNA, i.e. to modify the genetic material that makes bacteria, plants and animals, what they are.

DNA is modified all the time, right now in some of your cells as they divide and the complex enzymes that direct DNA duplication make a small mistake here and there. This is called a mutation. Most of them will go unnoticed. They happen in your skin and you may get a “sun spot” here and there because UV energy damaged DNA and the mutation was not corrected properly by the other enzymes in charge of fixing the mistake. These mutations are not directed by any plan, they just happen and, when they happen in an important gene, they may lead to cancer.

What does it mean to “engineer” a DNA change? Using sophisticated biochemical tools that include enzymes that can cut DNA in very well defined sequences, and other enzymes that can glue back the DNA, but this time with a “foreign” piece of DNA instead of the original, it is possible to make transgenic organisms.

This amazing technology is now being used to fight cancer. You may have somebody in your family who has benefited from “re-programming’ his/her immune system so that T cells – white blood cells that normally fight viruses – recognize and kill the cancer cells.
For plants, it is a different matter. Why would you genetically modify plants? That was the big question that plant biochemists were trying to answer when the technology became available. The question was, how can you use these techniques to benefit humanity? Now, decades after scientists got hold of the technology, we have some examples of how they were used. Some applications may seem useful, others just silly. We also found out in the intervening years that there were dangers in using the technology that we did not even know existed.

First, let me re-tell you a story you may already know. Between 1845 and 1852 there was a great famine in Ireland that resulted in a huge population decrease made of emigration plus one million deaths. The main factor in this terrible human disaster was a microscopic fungus called Phytophtora infestans, and this fungus infected potato which was the main foodstuff for the Irish population, the disease is called potato blight. At that time, there was no effective method to contain the fungus so that was it. There was no food and many people died.

Now there are fungicides that can contain this fungus. But wouldn’t it be nice to have potatoes that are resistant to the fungus? After all, people want “organic” potatoes grown without any insecticides or fungicides or even synthetic fertilizers. In any case, fungi are very good at evolving so that they become resistant to the fungicide.

A potato breeder may get lucky and find or create a variety that is more resistant to the fungus. This actually happened and the gene responsible for resistance to potato blight was found and cloned, available for further genetic manipulation. It would be nice to be able to insert that gene into potatoes that are sensitive to the fungus, and this was also done using genetic engineering, something that looks a bit like the “cut and paste” that we can do using word processing.

Would you mind eating these potatoes? The process is not very different from the one used by experienced potato breeders that select for favorable genetic characteristics and breed crops to get better. I would not mind at all. It would remove one cost (fungicides) of the cultivation of potato.

I may object, however, to other uses of genetic engineering. I don’t like the idea of a crop making a protein that is not made by that species, like, say, a plant making an insecticide (and whose effect on humans may not be well known). This is the case of corn engineered to make a bacterial toxin, working as an insecticide. Another: I would not like to see a plant making a human protein, like barley being genetically engineered to make human epidermal factor. What is the advantage in that?

And here we get to yet another objection to genetic manipulation of crops: we will never know enough about nature to be able to predict all possible bad outcomes of human intervention. One of those became apparent when butterflies die when they pollinate corn engineered to make a bacterial toxin. Another: a gene that confers resistance to a herbicide was acquired by non crop plants, starting a strain of super weeds.

Nobody knows what we don’t know, so it is presumptuous of scientists or CEOs of seed companies to sit down and decide what crop is going to be engineered next and how. This is why the European Union is very strict in deciding what can be done and to which crop. Unfortunately, other countries are not that careful. For example, Argentina has huge areas of the country now planted with transgenic soy resistant to glyphosate, a herbicide that is now sprayed in abundance on those huge areas of the country, affecting the health of people, plants and animals. To make things worse, this is the resistance gene that has been spread outside the crop, so now we have weeds resistant to glyphosate. What has been gained? There were some temporary financial gain for those planting soy because the yield was higher at a time when the demand for soy was high too, but the loses inflicted on everybody else are also high.

This is just one example to illustrate the complexity of the problem and the importance of accepting that we don’t know everything.

Now, let’s talk about specifics. We, at Skin Actives don’t use ingredients obtained from genetically modified plants. We don’t need to.

We are in favor of everything that is good for the environment. I (HNS) studied ecology at school when it was a relatively new science so I am very aware of environmental interactions. For example, I would not engineer barley to make EGF because I know that genes can be transferred between plants and I don’t like to introduce unknowns when there is enough stuff to worry about.

All of the above does not mean that I am not receptive to genetic engineering of plants. I still remember when plant engineering was almost a dream and scientists were suggesting ways that the technology could be used. Somebody suggested vaccines made in bananas (I don’t remember how the proteins were supposed to evade digestion), another was increasing starch accumulation in potato to make better French fries. If you can think of a good use for genetic engineering of plants, please let the scientists in your local university know. On the other hands, there have been many ideas that did not work out very well. For the time being, genetic engineering is a beautiful tool already in use to help humans fight cancer but it is still waiting for good ideas on how to use them for plants.