Missing Context in GMO Reporting.

Someone was asking what to make of this old article from 2007 on Ventria Bioscience’s trials of a rice that has a human transgene to breed a rice that can produce the bacteria fighting compound lysozyme.

The first GM food crop containing human genes is set to be approved for commercial production.

The laboratory-created rice produces some of the human proteins found in breast milk and saliva.

Its U.S. developers say they could be used to treat children with diarrhea, a major killer in the Third World.

The rice is a major step in so-called Frankenstein Foods, the first mingling of human-origin genes and those from plants. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has already signalled it plans to allow commercial cultivation.

The article doesn’t give much information or context, just a bunch of scary quotes from the usual suspects, many not particular to the rice in question. But it since it deals with one of the most taboo ideas surrounding genetic engineering it does provide an opportunity to provide some context and information that is all too often missing from reporting on genetic engineering.

With a fear based article like this the first thing is to figure out is “Is this even true?”

Turns out, yes. The rice has been tested. And the trials were approved by the FDA [pdf] in 2005. In fact, the medication is now on the market.

Here’s the context that I think was missing from the reporting.

First, when you want to scare people about genetic engineering you pretend that you are CROSSING a tomato with a flounder. Then you make a graphic depicting a half tomato, half flounder mutant.

Except that isn’t what is happening. You are taking 1 or 2 or 3 genes out of 10’s of thousands of genes from one organism and adding it to 10’s of thousands of genes of another organism.

A geneticist would say, “It doesn’t matter where a gene comes from, it matters what it does.”

Consider that humans share about half our genes with bananas. Suppose you were trying to breed a plantain that had a certain trait. The gene that conferred that trait was found in both humans and bananas. Why does it matter where that gene originated? It’s the same gene, doing the same thing.

In fact genetic engineers deal with this often. They can choose the same gene from different and sometime seemingly divergent sources. They make the decision based on which pairing produces the most successful transfer and it’s not always from the organism with the most similar phenotype.

As far as contamination goes, aside from the safeguards in place, natural selection provides strong protection against that. Traits bred into plants by humans by any technique don’t tend to spread into the wild because they don’t confer advantage in the wild. This is why you don’t find patches of feral Better Boy tomatoes growing in meadows. Those traits are either a deadly disadvantage outside of cultivation or they are quickly bred out for being useless.

It is unlikely that the ability to produce lysozyme would be advantageous for rice outside of the fields where it was being cultivated. And if it was, why do we care?

Which leads us to:

What is lysozyme?

Lysozymes, also known as muramidase or N-acetylmuramide glycanhydrolase, are glycoside hydrolases. These are enzymes (EC 3.2.1.17) that damage bacterial cell walls by catalyzing hydrolysis of 1,4-beta-linkages between N-acetylmuramic acid and N-acetyl-D-glucosamine residues in a peptidoglycan and between N-acetyl-D-glucosamine residues in chitodextrins. Lysozyme is abundant in a number of secretions, such as tears, saliva, human milk, and mucus. It is also present in cytoplasmic granules of the polymorphonuclear neutrophils (PMNs). Large amounts of lysozyme can be found in egg white.

That seems like it could be useful in treating diarrhea. Initial studies showed that it was.

The sad thing is the hysteria that makes biotech research so difficult and expensive:

“Farmers have got enough going against us without making the markets nervous unnecessarily,” said Sonny Martin, chairman of the Missouri Rice Research and Merchandising Council in February. “It doesn’t matter how much I want to help dehydrated children in some awful war-zone, it doesn’t matter how much I want pharmaceutical crops to be grown successfully and how many value-added dollars they could put in my pocket. All that matters is our customers don’t want any medicine in their breakfast cereal. In the future, if the markets can be convinced otherwise, fine — I might grow pharm-rice myself. But, right now, are we really willing to damage — or even ruin — our rice markets over this? We could literally be driven out of business by a few acres of this stuff.”

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About Marc Brazeau

Free lance cultural attaché. Writing at REALFOOD.ORG.

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