Friday, April 02, 2004

Ninagate: Friday science fun

I know everyone's still atwitter over Amandagate (ok, like 5 of you), but this is actually important:

Dehua Chen, et al., "Effect after introducing Bacillus thuringiensis gene on nitrogen metabolism in cotton," Field Crops Research 87, 2-3 (May 2004), 235-244 [abstract]:

However, changed vegetative and reproductive growth characteristics, which affected the expression of lint cotton yield potential, fiber quality and application of cultural practice, were reported frequently between different regions. Increased plant height, higher relative growth rate and biomass in vegetative organ, smaller bolls, reduced fiber microaire and lint percentage were observed in the Bt transgenic cotton, the changed causes are still unclear.
The point of the article is to figure out why these changes occur, but the important thing, casually summarized here in the intro, is that they do occur. Important because it demolishes one of the usual tiresome arguments that there is nothing new about genetic engineering:
And it is indeed a puzzle that people blithely accept churning up genomes with radiation, mutagenic chemicals, and a variety of other techniques, including intergeneric crosses, while looking askance at the newer, very much less disruptive molecular methods. But maybe they don't know what traditional breeders do.
This sentence was written by Nina Fedoroff, who was responsible, you will recall, for last November's headlines about "ancient genetic engineering." Science finally got around to publishing two letters explaining why this was stupid:
It is not a question of whether genetic engineering is good, bad, or irrelevant, but clarity of understanding requires that a distinction be recognized....

N. V. Fedoroff's Perspective "Prehistoric GM corn" seems calculated to obscure important issues in the debate over the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

[The letters, by Paul Grun and Tim Ramsay, respectively, can be found through this page, along with Fedoroff's response].

Now it is revealed that there is not as much precision to the process as Fedoroff and friends would have you believe: the intuitively obvious idea that sticking a new gene into a foreign genome might have more than one simple and predictable effect is, in fact, correct. Furthermore, this apparently has been documented repeatedly since at least 1995. So again, Nina, the question is not whether the process is good or bad, the question is why you feel compelled to dissemble about it. [I should also note parenthetically the strange disingenuousness of the (common) argument that if the masses knew of the (allegedly irrationally frightening) mutagenic techniques used in postwar plant breeding, then their allegedly irrational fear of molecular technology would vanish].

Now, add to this the recent revelations that DNA from GM plants can be transferred to human intestinal bacteria, and the hypothesis* that Bt corn pollen may be allergenic -- both things long claimed to be impossible -- and you have a situation that suddenly looks a lot more complicated than it used to. And so what? Christ, all anyone's saying is exactly that it's complicated, and we don't know exactly what we've wrought yet, but these people act as if you're speculating about the prophet's personal life by making such outrageous suggestions. My advice is to distrust any scientist who wants to tell you how simple nature is.

Further advice would be to regulate these really pretty cavernous unknowns a little more consciensciously, and it can be found in the new Pew report on the regulation of GE crops and animals. Cf. Justin Gillis's Post article, revealing the role of politicized Bush FDA appointees in blocking a scientific approach to the problem (surprise!); and Greg Jaffe's paper in Transgenic Research last month].

* I stress the hypothetical nature of this, um, hypothesis because it has not yet, God forbid, been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Yawn. A lot of good that did for Quist and Chapela....


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