New Kid Takes on the Terminator

Sometimes I kick myself for being too busy to blog something I consider important; with all those jillions of sites out there, someone else is bound to have said what I wanted to say. But it seems I’m in luck. Everyone else seems to be lathered by that long god-bothering piece in the New York Times, so I have the new Terminator almost to myself.

Here’s the story. On 26 February the University of Connecticut’s press office put out a story about a “new tool to protect crops from modified genes”. Nice spin! UConn scientist Yi Li had invented a method “for eliminating all the transgenic genes from pollen and seeds if needed”. What Li’s group did was to create a new target for a system that recognizes a particular sequence of DNA and snips out the intervening genes. With the new target, they reported, engineered genes were snipped out every single time in more than 25,000 tests. And the tests were done on several different engineered genes. (At least, I think they were; I have not been able to get access to the full published article, yet.) As the scientists wrote in their abstract:

“The ‘GM-gene-deletor’ reported here may be used to produce ‘non-transgenic’ pollen and/or seed from transgenic plants and to provide a bioconfinement tool for transgenic crops and perennials, with special applicability towards vegetatively propagated plants and trees.”

This could be very big. One of the objections to genetic manipulation of all sorts is that the engineered genes will escape and create superweeds. Li’s technology, he says, effectively removes the engineered genes from pollen and seeds, which would then be no different from unengineered pollen and seeds. No escape. The technique could also be used to excise the offending DNA from other edible products, such as fruits, thus knocking out another of the big objections, the safety of engineered foods.

Obviously one would expect those who object to GM crops to welcome Li’s hello-I-must-be-going genes with open arms. Obviously, one would be wrong. Actually, in the interests of fairness, they don’t seem to have noticed it yet. But I’m willing to bet they won’t welcome it, even though it could possibly answer some of their objections. The new system could even overcome the biggest objection to old-fashioned Terminator technology, that it would make farmers dependent on seed companies for their stocks, but it takes some chutzpah to advance that claim. Here’s the press release:

“With our technology,” says Hui Duan, one of Li’s former doctoral students and a co-author of the published research, “the seeds the farmers save will not have genetically-modified traits. The farmers would need to buy new seeds each year if they want the crops to have genetically-modified traits such as insect resistance or herbicide resistance. But if they did not want to do so or could not afford to do so, they would still be left with viable seeds to replant.”

Clear? You want what the seed offers, buy it! You don’t, that’s fine, don’t buy it. As with all these spiffy seed company technologies, the whole point is to divorce the seed as product from the seed as means of production. Li’s technology, used this way, like Terminator is just a logical extension of F1 hybrids, which also rob the poor farmer of the ability to sponge forever on the seed company’s investment. Either way, the engineered genes are at least corralled to some extent, maybe more so with Li’s technique than with Terminator.

So I’ll be waiting – in vain, I expect – for the doom-mongers to adopt Li as they should have adopted Terminator before him. And in the meantime, I’ll continue to amuse myself by pointing out this illogicality. I did so on a blog called the Tao of Health, where I asked how biotechnology and genetic engineering “are threatening biodiversity and the world’s seeds” as author Ed Bremson claimed. And while I agree with him that “most biotechnology … is designed to enrich a handful of corporations” I still don’t see the logic of objecting to the corporations’ efforts to meet his objections.

I didn’t bother at Fold/Spindle/Mutilate 2.0, where a long and rambling post raises just about every objection to GM in the forlorn hope that maybe one will stick. If you regard a bit of foreign DNA in genebank corn samples “as the worst case of GMO contamination in crops ever reported in the world,” as author S’ra DeSantis seems to, you would think that anything that could reduce that contamination (beyond, of course, the genebank doing its job right) would be a boon. But no. And those noble campesinos, whose way of life will be destroyed by this “genetic pollution,” how will they continue to develop their beautifully adapted local varieties if the flow of genes among varieties is to be forbidden?

I know I’m banging my head against a brick wall. I know neither side actually gives a flying fuck for real research results or rationality. I know my ravings will not have the slightest influence on anybody. But still, I can’t help it; when I see people on both sides of the house hide their hypocrisy behind a veil of “science” it makes me want to bring a pox down on them all.

I’m back where I always am on these questions: informed choice. And by informed, I don’t mean scientifically informed. I mean given the information to exercise a choice. Labeling remains the answer. Compulsory labeling, with no weasel outs. When the gene jockeys have something they want me (as opposed to a farmer) to pay more for, you can bet they’ll want to tout its benefits. In the meantime, they keep their doings hidden from the ultimate decision-makers, the people who have to swallow the stuff.

Article: Keming Luo, Hui Duan, Degang Zhao, Xuelian Zheng, Wei Deng, Yongqin Chen, C. Neal Stewart Jr, Richard McAvoy, Xiangning Jiang, Yanhong Wu, Aigong He, Yan Pei, Yi Li (2007) ‘GM-gene-deletor’: fused loxP-FRT recognition sequences dramatically improve the efficiency of FLP or CRE recombinase on transgene excision from pollen and seed of tobacco plants. Plant Biotechnology Journal 5 (2), 263–374. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7652.2006.00237.x


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