The Daily Texan

Front Page
State & Local
World & Nation
AP News
Contact Us

  Volume 101, No. 98 Tuesday, February 20, 2001  

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

Last 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.

The complexity 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.

They 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.

The fact 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 catastrophes.

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 food."

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