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Central theory for biotech is flawed

Sound Consumer | May 2002

by Cameron Woodworth

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Proponents of genetic engineering long have insisted that scientists can change genes in our foods with pinpoint accuracy, ensuring that our food will be safe and our environment untarnished.

On the other side are scientists who say that the long-term effects of genetic engineering are unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Chief among them is a well-known name in biology: Dr. Barry Commoner, senior scientist at the Center for Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College, City University of New York. His lengthy article in Harper's magazine in February has set off a contentious debate.

Commoner argues that the central scientific philosophy used to justify genetic engineering is wrong. In 1958, Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of the DNA double helix, enshrined the "Central Dogma" of molecular biology: that DNA genes are in total control of inheritance in all forms of life. Genetic engineers have used this notion to insist that transferring a gene from one organism to another is always precise and predictable, and therefore safe. Not so, says Commoner.

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Genome project evidence
Commoner points to the massive $3 billion Human Genome Project, begun in 1990, for evidence. The Central Dogma suggests a one-to-one relationship between a gene's chemical composition and the structure of the protein it produces. That would suggest that the number of human genes should equal the 100,000 or more known human proteins. Last year, however, scientists working on the genome project announced that they had found only 30,000 human genes — a surprise that contradicts the Central Dogma about DNA and undermines the foundation for genetic engineering.

"People are only about as gene-rich as a mustard-like weed (which has 25,000 genes)," writes Commoner, "and about twice as genetically endowed as a fruit fly or primitive worm ... There are far too few human genes to account for the vast inherited differences between plants, say, and people.

"The DNA gene clearly exerts an important influence on inheritance," Commoner explains, but "genetic information arises not from DNA alone, but through its essential collaboration with protein enzymes" in the living cell. We know, for example, that proteins transmit genetic information and give rise to many variations in amino acid sequences and the traits they engender.

Genetic disruptions
Inserting genes from one species to another isn't a clean process, Commoner says. Most alarming, he says, is evidence that the genome (the entire array of genes) of genetically engineered (GE) soybeans has been unwittingly altered. In 2000, Monsanto admitted that its herbicide-producing soybeans contain extra fragments of the transferred gene.

"The degree to which such disruptions do occur ... is not known at present," Commoner writes. "No tests, for example, are required to show that a GE plant actually produces a protein with the same amino acid sequence as the original ... Given that some unexpected effects may develop very slowly, crop plants should be monitored in successive generations as well. None of these essential tests are being performed," Commoner concludes.

"Dr. Commoner's work challenges the legitimacy of the agricultural biotechnology industry," says Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center on Food Safety. "For years, multibillion dollar biotech companies have been selling the American people and our government on the safety of their products. We now see their claims of safety are based on faulty assumptions that don't hold up to rigorous scientific review."

Peer pressure
Evidence of flaws in the central dogma of DNA has been around for the last 40 years, says Commoner, but the theory has been protected by fears of professional ostracism as well as by the amount of money involved in funding molecular genetics. Dissenting, or discovering contrary evidence is often considered a punishable offense among scientific peers when a pure, academic pursuit has been distorted into a capital venture funded by commercial interests.

What can consumers do? Get involved. See Get Involved. Our most effective course of action is to pass legislation.

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