New research and applications for genetically manipulated organisms are in the news almost daily. Genetic manipulation is the new playing field and has many potential uses—and abuses. Are we ready for it? With more refined equipment and computers to work at the sub-cellular level, combined with better understanding of the organic chemistry of DNA and chromosomes, literally anybody, who wants to, can do genetic research. Multinational corporations like DuPont and Monsanto are going full steam ahead, and your neighbor could be, too.
In a San Francisco home, a 31-year-old computer programmer is working to create a safer, genetically altered yogurt bacteria so that it will glow green in the presence of melamine. An international group called DIYbio is organizing community labs worldwide where the public can use lab equipment to do their own research. Some so-called biohackers want to push the boundaries and spread knowledge, make the world safer, or just use squid genes to make tattoos glow. That idea isn’t so far-fetched. The GloFish is a patented and trademarked brand of genetically modified (GM) fish that is available in pet stores right now (unless you live in California where such GM organisms are illegal) in bright red, green, orange-yellow, blue, and purple florescent colors. This is one of the first genetically modified animals to be available as a pet. Of course, if you try to breed your own, you could be sued for patent infringement.
Embryonic stem cells were found to improve the vision in two women who were legally blind. Stem cells are also being used to test artificial flavors for our food. Because human stem cells are a hot political topic, researchers have found ways to transplant human DNA into rabbits to create viable eggs. A team of researchers at the U.S. National Cancer Institute has recently engineered mice with an extra human artificial chromosome (HAC) in their cells. The scientists used a synthetic chromosome made “from scratch.” Their goal was to create a vehicle for gene delivery into human cells to study gene function. They want to be able to take skin cells from a diseased patient, turn them into stem cells, insert HACs with healthy versions of a diseased gene into the stem cells, then insert these cells back into the patient to treat a wide variety of illnesses.
If any of this doesn’t sound threatening to you, then consider the possibility that your next-door neighbor could be the biohacker who accidentally unleashes the next global virus. Though many people are concerned about the safety and ethics of this research, many scientists, and the industries that fund them, are going full steam ahead in manipulating the genes of animals and plants for a wide variety of different applications. So far some people’s need to make money and others’ need to ‘save humanity’ outweigh the safety concerns. The Vatican recently shifted its stance on genetic manipulation. The old line was that scientists shouldn’t be playing God. The current position is that the scientists have a moral duty to be the “stewards of God” by genetically modifying crops to help the world’s poor. Shall we play God, even though we don’t really understand how genes work or what long-term effects the organisms we create will have on the world?
Though genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are largely banned in the 28-nation European Union, they are widely used in the U.S. and in developing countries. The much-publicized movement in California to label foods containing GMOs was squashed by corporate money in the 2012 election. GMOs are big business in the U.S. and the politicians continue to push Europe to ease its restrictions. The first genetically modified crop to be mass-produced was tobacco in 1983, and it’s been grown heavily all over the world since then, especially in Brazil and China. Currently, more than 85 percent of the corn, soy, cottonseed, and canola produced in the U.S. comes from GMOs. Pesticides are an integral part of these plants, and we ingest these pesticides whenever we eat anything with (for instance) corn syrup in it. Though they’ve been ‘proven’ safe by the industry, these pesticides kill insects. What might they be doing to us?
The U.S. Government treats GMOs as pesticides, not food products. Consultation with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is voluntary for companies developing crops. Most of the research on GMOs is done by the companies that produce them and shows arguably favorable results. In some cases, though, when unfavorable results were found, the seed companies would not allow them to be published. Research critical of GM products is vigorously attacked, and the researchers are discredited. GM agriculture is a multi-billion dollar industry; so obviously, it can manipulate the publicly available facts.
Others argue that the core flaw of genetic research is the assumption that one gene affects one protein and has a simple and direct causative effect. The Human Genome Project showed us that we have far fewer genes than we suspected, so their effect on our biology isn’t easily understood. Even when a gene has been identified as related to a particular illness, it isn’t the only gene involved; that particular gene doesn’t always trigger the illness. Genes seem to have multiple functions, and all exist in relationship with each other. The companies doing research on genes are still operating under the idea that changing a single gene is as simple as swapping out a part in a complex machine.
Transgenic manipulation is when a gene is taken from one species and put into another. An article in Nature reported that these transgenic genes can be up to 30 times more likely to escape the organism than the plant’s own genes; they can thus spread more easily ‘horizontally’ from one organism to another via microorganisms or mutation. This is already occurring with the Roundup-resistant plants being developed by Monsanto. The same Roundup resistance is showing up in weeds around the crop. These highly resistant super-weeds are much harder to kill, requiring much more herbicide than was previously needed. Within a couple years of planting GMO seeds, farmers need to use much higher concentrations of chemicals.
Not surprisingly, the potential dangers of horizontal transfer disturb many people. In taking genes from one species and transferring them into another species, we are bypassing natural safeguards and defenses that exist in all life forms. According to Dr. Joseph Cummins, a professor of genetics at the University of Western Toronto, “The greatest threat from genetically altered crops is the insertion of modified virus and insect virus genes into crops… It has been shown in the laboratory that genetic recombination will create highly virulent new viruses from such constructions.” Virus genes are used for transgenic manipulation because they are effective at getting into other organisms. The cauliflower mosaic virus, for instance, is one that is commonly used as a carrier for genetic material and is a dangerous gene. It is very similar to the Hepatitis B virus and to HIV. What would happen if it, the virus, mutated and got loose? Creating a super-virus is what most governments perceive to be the highest security risk in the field of genetic research.
Combine this with the fact that multiple times in the history of GM crops, what was produced has shown up in places where it shouldn’t be. GM wheat from the northwest U.S., which showed up in Thailand nearly resulted in the shutdown of the entire U.S. wheat trade. To this day, no one knows where the GM contamination actually came from. In 2007, genetic material from a new golf course grass being tested by Scotts Miracle Gro was found in native grasses as far as 13 miles away from the test sites, apparently released when freshly cut grass was blown by the wind.
The biotech companies seem to have little consideration for the complex interconnections between their products and other plants and organisms. For example, where these crops are planted as a monoculture on the same land over several years, other organisms such as birds, fish, and insects suffer. Where GM crops have been cultivated, secondary pests that were not initially present have shown up which are resistant to Roundup and the other pesticides that are used. These adaptations can happen very quickly. The new pests are now with us and they won’t go away. Armyworms have been eating first generation GM corn in Florida and now the pesticide-resistant pink bollworm in India is able to consume GM cotton. After a couple of years of GMO monoculture planting, more pesticides and petrochemicals are required to support the plants, further degrading the overall health of the ecosystem.
The Genome Project has made it more obvious that the old dogma of a mechanistic biology no longer makes sense. We know that genes carry the blueprints for the production of proteins, but we don’t understand how they assemble into cells, tissues, and organs. Each of us has almost the same number of genes as the microscopic nematode roundworm known as Caenorhabditis elegans, which has a body made up of only around a thousand cells. The idea of a one-way flow of information from DNA to proteins to organs just doesn’t add up.
Researchers such as Rupert Sheldrake and Bruce Lipton have long suggested that the genes comprising DNA should be seen more as receivers of information, like a radio transmitter, than bits of matter that contain all the information. They suggest instead that the environment and the membranes of the cells direct the shape of the organism that develops. Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance suggests that a kind of organic memory is inherent in nature and that natural systems, such as termite colonies, bird migration, and insulin molecules, inherit a collective memory from all previous things of their kind. One example of this is the cuckoo that often lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. The host bird raises the baby cuckoo, which then locates other cuckoos, mates, and lays its eggs in another bird’s nest. The cuckoo’s DNA directs the maturation of its body, but what directs its intelligence? How does it know it needs to find other cuckoos, and how does it know where to find them?
Some researchers and critics welcome Sheldrake’s theory as a new mind-body paradigm that can revise the outdated and muddled mechanistic notions of matter and biology. Others claim that his ideas are pseudoscience, citing their inconsistency with established scientific theories and declaring that they lack evidence. Yet DNA is now understood to be much more fluid and responsive than the old mechanistic model supposed. In the right situations organisms can mutate much more rapidly than previously believed. Experiments with E. coli bacteria have shown that when these bacteria are grown on a food source that they can’t use, they rapidly mutate to adapt; furthermore, the only E. coli genes that mutate are the ones that enable the organism to use the food that is available. This phenomenon has also been shown to occur in yeast cells and possibly in fruit flies. This research shows that genes are fluid and able to respond to environmental challenges so that an organism can maintain stability.
Geneticists such as Mae-Wan Ho suggest that when an organism responds successfully to an environmental challenge in this way, it is not acting randomly, but purposefully. Ho’s model points to an instinctive intelligence that is not in the DNA and transcends the Darwinian idea of evolution through random mutation. This kind of species intelligence may be what allows the weeds to adapt so quickly into super, pesticide-resistant varieties. Given that adaptability, it is even more frightening to learn that viruses are being used as the carriers for GMOs. Wouldn’t the viruses also have their own species intelligence directing them to adapt and mutate, allowing them to jump more easily across species barriers?
Researchers are playing at being the “stewards of God” when they try to combine the traits from different organisms and species in order to feed the hungry and heal the sick, and incidentally, while making lots of money. They don’t concern themselves with the ethical concerns innate in this kind of research, such as the suffering of the new organisms that survive and suffer. Also, since we clearly can’t control the species we’re altering, is it our human or corporate right to permanently change the genome and expression of species in unpredictable ways? Dr. Eugene McCarthy, a Georgia-based geneticist, has proposed that humans first arose from an ancient hybrid cross between pigs and chimpanzees. His idea certainly seems possible. There are a lot more cross-species hybrids in the natural world than you might realize. Since we have the capability, he is wondering, why don’t we test this theory by crossing a pig and a chimp and see what happens?
Perhaps the reason genetic research in general seems to strike a visceral fear in people is that we can imagine the horrendous possibilities of crossing different species and the kinds of creatures we could create. The psychic Edgar Cayce proposed that the civilization of Atlantis self-destructed partly because of bizarre, mythological creatures that were created there through genetic manipulation. Whether you believe in Atlantis or Cayce, how do you feel when you learn that another child was born this year using a method called next-generation sequencing to find the “best” out of ten of his parents’ in-vitro-fertilized embryos? We are already breeding supposedly genetically superior children. What will we try next?
On the hopeful side, people are getting more educated. Communities are saying “no” to GMOs at the local level. Concerned citizens are also protesting against unrestrained medical research. It isn’t just an issue for the Left or the Right. A Mexican judge banned GMO corn citing risk of immanent harm to the environment. The city council of Kauai, Hawaii, passed a law that mandates the disclosure of pesticide use and GMOs. The bill also requires a buffer zone around medical facilities, homes, and schools.
If none of this worries you, consider this: Professor George Church of Harvard Medical School believes that he could resurrect the Neanderthal species, which became extinct over 30,000 years ago. He believes the DNA sequence from bone samples is now sufficiently complete. All he needs is a human female to gestate and give birth to the Neanderthal. Feeling adventurous?
Patrick Marsolek is a writer, dancer, facilitator, clinical hypnotherapist and the director of Inner Workings Resources. He is the author of Transform Yourself: A Self-Hypnosis Manual and A Joyful Intuition. See PatrickMarsolek.com for more information.