Thursday, October 26, 2006


Genetic Modification Reloaded

The resistance to genetically modified foods has been based on the fairly sensible concern that a foreign gene and/or the vector used to insert it into the DNA of the food, could have unforeseen effects. In fact, some of the unforeseen effects have been very foreseeable. Put a Brazil nut protein gene in corn, and everyone who is allergic to Brazil nuts will be allergic to corn. Proper testing could obviate those concerns. American agritech companies would rather treat consumers like guinea pigs, so their products have become unwelcome in Europe. Now there's an alternative. described by gadfly Jeremy Rifkin: The new ... agricultural technology is called marker-assisted selection (MAS). The new technology offers a sophisticated method to greatly accelerate classical breeding. A growing number of scientists believe MAS - which is already being introduced into the market - will eventually replace GM food. Moreover, environmental organisations that oppose GM crops are guardedly supportive of MAS technology. Rapidly accumulating information about crop genomes is allowing scientists to identify genes associated with traits such as yield, and then scan crop relatives for the presence of those genes. Instead of using molecular splicing techniques to transfer a gene from an unrelated species into the genome of a food crop to increase yield, resist pests or improve nutrition, scientists are now using MAS to locate desired traits in other varieties or wild relatives of a particular food crop, then crossbreeding those plants with the existing commercial varieties to improve the crop. This greatly reduces the risk of environmental harm and potential adverse health effects associated with GM crops.... Using MAS, researchers in the Netherlands have developed a new lettuce variety resistant to an aphid that causes reduced and abnormal growth. Researchers at the US department of agriculture have used MAS to develop a strain of rice that is soft on the outside but remains firm on the inside after processing. Scientists in the UK and India have used MAS to develop pearl millet that is tolerant of drought and resistant to mildew. The difference is really in the process: gene insertion vs. reproductive recombination. Inserting genes can lead to accidental introduction of extraneous genes or damage to DNA. Reproductive recombination provides a mechanism to repair or reject damaged DNA. It's probably not true that MAS never leads to dangerous products. Nature is full of counterexamples. Large-scale MAS is no less prone than genetic recombination to loss of biodiversity. Biodiversity helps to prevent crop plagues from reaching dangerous levels. So, many problems remain. But it's good to see human minds taking on large and difficult problems to prove once again that there's more than one way to skin a cattail.
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