Friday, November 14, 2003

You have undoubtedly seen the news stories with their ridiculous headlines by now:

Genetic manipulation not new, study suggests

Farmers genetically modified corn 4000 years ago

...ad nauseam. The first problem is that this is not news -- we have known since the 'twenties that maize "evolved" from teosinte thanks to human selection. Nina Fedoroff's commentary in Science at least makes that clear. Unfortunately, she insists throughout on on calling this process -- which normal people would call "breeding" and "selection" -- "genetic engineering"; thus the irrelevant headlines.

This little episode reveals some of the reasons why you can't really trust anything you read any more. First, the tiresome insistance of agenda-driven scientists on manipulating the evidence: Fedoroff told Wired news:

Changes being made today are probably much smaller than the ones that changed a wild grass with very hard seeds to one that is edible and useful for people," said Nina Fedroff [sic]*, a plant biologist at Penn State University, who wrote a perspective that accompanied the Science study. "As far as a general hazard, (modern day genetic modifications) are much less hazardous than what people have done for most of the century."
This bizarre non sequitur suffuses her Science commentary, albeit a little more subtly. Wired at least got a reasonable reply from the lead author that explains why this endlessly repeated argument is so stupid:
"In the genes we looked at, early farmers did not 'change' anything within the gene," said Viviane Jaenicke [sic]*, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. "All (of the genes) were already present in the teosinte (corn's precursor) populations. All the early farmers did was to select teosinte plants which carried the alleles they were interested in. And this selection process created then the maize. So it is not 'engineering' but a selection process."
*[Wired amusingly got both names wrong: Nina V. Fedoroff and Viviane Jaenicke-Despr�s]

Of course, this all came about because "journalists" simply scan the commentaries for news items (figuring that Science will highlight anything remotely newsworthy) -- and perhaps there is pressure on the commentators to sex up the research. Because the real import of the study -- interesting indeed, but hardly ripped from the headlines -- is summarized simply and concisely in the abstract:

Maize was domesticated from teosinte, a wild grass, by 6300 years ago in Mexico. After initial domestication, early farmers continued to select for advantageous morphological and biochemical traits in this important crop. However, the timing and sequence of character selection are, thus far, known only for morphological features discernible in corn cobs. We have analyzed three genes involved in the control of plant architecture, storage protein synthesis, and starch production from archaeological maize samples from Mexico and the southwestern United States. The results reveal that the alleles typical of contemporary maize were present in Mexican maize by 4400 years ago. However, as recently as 2000 years ago, allelic selection at one of the genes may not yet have been complete.
11/18: both the article and the commentary should be publicly accessible from this SciDev.net page.

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