Genetic technologies breed controversy
The public should not be the guinea pigs in an experiment to maximize corporate profits.
By Travis Metcalfe
Daily Texan Columnist
week, two independent research groups both announced the completion of
the so-called Human Genome Project, which has mapped the chemical
sequence of the entire human DNA code. Scientists hope to use this code
to identify and develop genetic treatments for certain diseases, like
cancer and mental illness. What many people don't realize is that the
technology that will make these new treatments possible is already
being used to modify the genetic structure of foods, and most Americans
are already eating them.
The motivation for mapping
human DNA is to enable scientists to identify specific sequences or
genes that cause certain diseases. But during the announcement last
week, Craig Venter of Celera Genomics said, "If anything, we've learned
that we don't think this data's going to be as deterministic as was
previously thought." In other words, the idea that gene X codes for
characteristic Y may be too simplistic.
of the problem was demonstrated by researchers in Oregon last month,
who tried to create a glow-in-the-dark monkey. Using a gene from a
jellyfish that glows green, the scientists developed a method to insert
the segment into the genetic structure of a monkey embryo.
attempted to alter 224 fertilized eggs, which produced only 40 viable
embryos. They implanted the embryos in 20 female monkeys, of which only
five got pregnant. Three of these five gave birth to healthy babies,
but only one of them actually contained the jellyfish glo-gene. This
monkey, named ANDi (for inserted DNA backwards), did not actually glow
in the dark. The only true glo-monkeys produced were two infants who
were stillborn by one of the other females.
that expression of the glo-gene proved to be fatal in the monkeys
suggests that scientists don't completely understand the cause and
effect relationship between specific genes and the characteristics they
are supposed to encode. But the same sort of cross-species genetic
experimentation is already being used in our food supply.
According to Martin Teitel and Kimberly Wilson, authors of Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature,
scientists put fish genes into some tomatoes to make them resistant to
cold. Other innovations include the splicing of bacteria into corn for
pest resistance and a gene for herbicide resistance in soybean plants
(so heavy doses of the chemicals that kill weeds can be sprayed on the
crops without killing them too).
The long term health
effects of genetically modified foods are unknown, but this isn't the
only reason to be cautious. The mutant crops are now being released
into the environment and cross-fertilizing with natural plants. The
genetic modifications are designed to jump across species boundaries
easily, so this kind of genetic pollution could pose serious problems
in the future. If our food supply becomes too genetically uniform, a
single natural disaster like the 1846 potato blight in Ireland could
wipe out everything. Diversity is our natural protection against such
Given these concerns, the backlash
against genetically-modified food is not surprising. A report on
consumer attitudes toward biotechnology was released last week by the
Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the labeling of food
products. Based on focus groups in several cities across the country,
the report concluded that "most participants expressed great surprise
that food biotechnology has become so pervasive in the U.S. food
supply. The typical reaction of participants was outrage that such a
change in the food supply could happen without them knowing about it."
Richard Caplan of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in a recent interview with The Washington Post agreed."There
is overwhelming public support in favor of mandatory labeling," he
said. "People want to know when biotechnology is being used in their
The public should not be the guinea pig in an
experiment to maximize corporate profits. Cross-species genetic
modification is still in its infancy, yet we are already eating its
products. The FDA should follow the will of the public and enact
mandatory labeling of genetically-modified foods so that consumers can
choose for themselves.
Metcalfe is a doctoral student in the Department of Astronomy