‘Safer’ GMOs? Really?

January 27, 2015 by Staff Reporter

GMO scientists don’t just want to play God – they want to play Steven Spielberg as well, it seems.

Last week a paper by Yale scientists and one from Harvard Medical School scientists was published in the journal Nature. They claimed to have re-written the genetic code of the E.coli bacteria in a way which, according to BBC news, make GMO’s ‘safer’.

It’s an interesting claim given that the BBC and other conventional media outlets have always parroted the biotech industry line that GMOs are completely safe in every possible way.

Just like Jurassic Park

The failure of GMOs to deliver on their promises for agriculture has led scientist to look for other ways of applying GM technology, with different uses being developed for use in contained environments like laboratories.

However, strict physical containment (locked doors, high security systems, etc.) measures are still needed to keep these bacteria and enzymes from being released into the wild.

Now scientists are trying to create a type of ‘biological containment’ so that these bacteria can be deliberately released into nature. To make these synthetic organisms safe they are engineered to need a special food (synthetic amino acids) to survive. Yes, much like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park – and look what happened there!

Instead of genetic engineering the scientist call the new process ‘genetic recoding’.

Terminator 2

The new synthetic organisms echo a particularly disastrous part of GM’s past.

Once upon a time scientists tried to impose so-called ‘terminator technology’ on farmers.  Terminator technology – also called Genetic Use Restriction Technology or GURTS – referred to plants that have been genetically modified to produce sterile seeds at harvest.

Industry argued that engineered sterility made genetically engineered plant ‘safer’ because if genes from a Terminator crop cross-pollinated with related plants nearby, the seed produced from unwanted pollination would not germinate.

But Terminator technology is a complex system involving multiple inserted genes that all work together in a sequence. No one could ever guarantee that it was 100% effective which made it an unreliable tool for “biocontainment”.

Worse, Terminator seeds threatened the livelihoods of small farmers throughout the world who depend on seed saving, they were also a way for biotech companies to protect their intellectual property (IP) and increase their monopoly on the global seed market. Indeed IP was the main driver behind the terminator seeds, which were ruled to be unethical and dangerous and eventually became the subject of a global moratorium that has been inforce for more than a decade.

The nutty professors

These latest GMOs are raising concerns because living things are being genetically altered in more extensive ways than before, through a technique called synthetic biology.

Beloved by lab geeks and biohackers alike, synthetic biology is a way of creating man-made life forms that have never and could never exist naturally on Earth. The consequences of releasing such organisms into the wild are completely unknown – and, worse, unknowable.

It’s worth bearing in mind that there is already a multibillion dollar synthetic biology industry producing ingredients for market using engineered bacteria and yeast that have no safety mechanisms, are poorly regulated and with barely any oversight or public awareness.

These organisms include specially engineered bacteria and enzymes to produce drugs and fuels, the enzymes in household laundry powders and for removing pollutants from contaminated areas such as sea and soil.

According to the New York Times biotech companies are even trying to genetically engineer immune system cells that attack tumours. Unfortunately, when these engineered cells are put into patients, they can cause a dangerous immune system overreaction.

Some companies are now looking to incorporate a suicide gene into the engineered cells, so they can be killed by administration of a drug if things go terribly wrong.

Mission impossible?

The new research into biocontainment, say the scientists, is a ‘proof of concept’ for a new generation of GMOs, including plants. In other words it shows what is possible in the broadest terms. It does not address the rights and wrong or even the potential pitfalls – of which there are many.

Like the Terminator seeds before them, these synthetic creations raise serious security concerns. If it’s possible to engineer organisms to stop and start working under the control of an external trigger, for example, this could be regarded as an excellent tool of war or threat.

Laboratory studies like the ones in Nature, were once used to convince us that antibiotics were perfectly safe and could never develop resistance to any known drug. Now we know that this was an arrogant assumption.

No one knows either if these ‘safer’ GMOs will be able to transfer some of their genetic does to other strains of bacteria. The unknowns are almost too staggering to contemplate.

What is more, as other scientists have pointed out even if the ‘genetically recoded’ organisms what it is supposed to do, it will be of no use for applications that require the deliberate release of genetically modified micro-organisms into the environment (e.g. to clean up oil spills and other pollutants or as fertilisers).

In order to perform their intended function, GMOs used for those kinds of applications need to be able to survive and persist in the environment. Clearly it is far too soon to be heralding this as a success.

When it comes to GMOs we are rapidly approaching a stage where our ability to manipulate technology far outstrips our ability to think through the issues of whether we should or to control the results of such experiments.