Saturday, 24 January 2015

Science VS. GMOs

"Scientists design GMOs that can't escape into the wild." Peak irony. A scientific discovery that plays into the hands of the anti-science crowd.

This should be celebrated as a scientific milestone for what it means about life and our understanding of it. Scientists have managed to create a living organism that uses synthetic amino acids. This is the manipulation of the building blocks of life (as we know it) itself. Its implications for research about how life evolved and other advancements are yet to be discovered and appreciated.

So how does the story play out? Almost every media report is about how they could "extend [this] technique to genetically modified crops. That could ease concerns about spreading outside their designated fields."

Ah yes. The naturalistic fallacy. GMO crops are taking over the world, wreaking havoc with ecosystems, etc. etc. Except when they're not. Which is all of the time.

Every single crop mankind cultivates is a GMO crop. We have cross-bred, selectively bred, and used mutation breeding to create desirable traits in every single food crop we cultivate. (As a child of the 70s/80s I am amused and surprised that using radiation on our crops didn't provoke this much of an outcry. Mutation by radiation was the cause of every scary monster imaginable.) We have genetically modified cattle, sheep, dogs and numerous other animals for our advantage. But modify genes in a lab? That ain't natural! This must be stopped. (Seriously. If you are dead set against Genetically Modified Organisms, give-up your dog or cat right now. They're not "natural" creatures.)

We didn't fear "contaminating the natural environment" when Canadian farmers created multiple strains of GMO Wheat for over 100 years. These man-made strains of wheat have not taken over our wild environments. But it is these man-made strains that are seen as vulnerable to cross-contamination from man-made laboratory wheat. Because when nature cross-breeds two man-made varieties, that's wrong. Or something. There is no naturally occurring food-crop that can be contaminated with a man-made GMO. All of our food crops are already GMOs. Preventing cross-contamination by laboratory derived GMOs is not just closing the gate when the horse has bolted. It's closing the gate when all the horses have bolted, mated and raised generations of horses all hooving their noses at you.

Look, I get that farmers are sued when patented genetic material lands in their fields. I get that they are forced to destroy their own crops because of the action of wind, rain and insects. And for the record, that is 100% bullshit. It is my firm opinion that the patent system stifles innovation, unfairly punishes infringement and is a horribly broken system in need of a rewrite or total abandonment. But GMO technology is not the root problem. The patent system, and its legal protections are the problem.

The irony here is that GMO plants dependent on artificial amino acids are seen as some sort of solution. Let's explore that a bit. Say they do create a variety of wheat or corn that cannot survive without one or more synthetic amino acids. How would a planted field get those amino acids? Through either fortified water or fertilizer that allows the plants to absorb the amino acids through their root systems. As it is impossible for 100% of these synthetic aminos to be absorbed, that means that there will be synthetic amino acids left behind in the soil. Where naturally occurring bacteria, insects, etc. live. Year after year, decade after decade, the farmer seeds the soil with these artificial amino acids. How long before evolutionary processes kick in and wild creatures evolve to use these amino acids? What then?

Following this thought process through, the cure is much worse than the disease. Especially considering the disease is an artificial construct of our minds in the first place.

Food for thought. No?

UPDATE: Carl Zimmer explains why artificial amino acids unlikely to cause the effect I warn about:
there are hundreds of other kinds of amino acids in nature, and scientists have created many others that are never found in nature.

In theory, living things should be able to use these amino acids to build their proteins, too. They don’t, however, because all living things share a nearly identical code for translating the information in their genes into proteins.

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