Saturday, January 30, 2010

Advances in Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering is slowly but steadily catching up to other forms of engineering in being more reproducible technical skill than trial and error art. Here are some cool new advances I heard about at PAG.*

Would you feel better about eating genetically engineered rice if you knew it only contained rice DNA and not DNA from mustard, bacteria or fish? Most people would. That's the idea behind cis-genic (a.k.a. intragenic) engineering (as opposed to transgenic, get it?). One speaker had a particularly fascinating presentation where he described how his group searched through the rice genome to find stretches of DNA sequence that were very similar to the flanking sequences that we already use to inject DNA into plant genomes (e.g. mimicking the TDNA left and right borders of the Agrobacterium plasmid).

This approach strikes me as somewhat cynical... I'd rather use the optimal sequence for any given engineering project than try to search for a native sequence that's close enough to work (while explaining to the public why genetic engineering isn't inherently scary in the first place). At any rate, I applaud them for the sophistication and precision of the tools they're developing. These types of advancements will really help us to engineer organisms rationally (as opposed to our current approach which generally involves making thousands and thousands of transgenic individuals and then exhaustively testing them all to see which one turned out right).

New Commercial Products
The big seed companies are getting close to releasing transgenic plants with traits that benefit consumers themselves and not just ag and food companies. I've predicted before that the public opposition to GMOs will largely evaporate as they see benefits of genetic engineering in their day to day lives - we'll see if I'm right.**

One company pointed out that 2/3 of fat in the American diet comes from soybeans - so changing the oil profile of soybean varieties can have a big impact on health. They're close to releasing new varieties that have no trans-fats and low saturated fats (through a combination of transgenic and natural*** mutants). These changes actually made the major oil profile of soybeans the same as olive oil! If olive oil really is as healthy as nutritionists seem to think, I'd bet a lot of money it's due to more than just the oil profile - but making 2/3 of the average American's fat intake better is definitely a step in the right direction.

They're also finishing up work on potato varieties that produce much less acrylamide when fried, and are less subject to browning, bruising and starch degradation (all important consumer traits). One speaker pointed out that many crops (like potato) are extremely difficult to improve by breeding and will greatly benefit from transgenic techniques. The same speaker pointed out that after a massive effort, a natural resistance gene for apple scab was once found, but by the time they were able to breed it into modern varieties the apple scab fungus had already evolved to overcome it! Similarly, the speaker invoked the story of Marge the cow, who has a natural mutation that makes her milk naturally skim. Butter made from this milk can apparently be spread even while frozen! Breeding a commercial herd from her would take a very long time, but genetic engineering could quickly make this trait available to everyone (no word on if anyone's been working on this).

One of the Monsanto talks showed an impressive graph charting the increases in yield (and decreases in water and chemical input per bushel) that have occurred in the past several decades. Pesticide and water use in particular seemed to rise from the '70s to the early '90s, when it began to crash accompanied by increased regulation and introduction of transgenic resistances. The speaker talked about the wide differences in corn yield in different parts of the world (from an average of 150 bushels/acre in the Midwest to only 20 in Sub-Saharan Africa). Their stated goal is to double corn yields and cut chemical inputs by 2/3 by 2030. Some corn breeders I've met thought this absurdly optimistic, but we didn't land on the moon by shooting for Antarctica...

Finally, there was another plug that both Monsanto's famous first generation glyphosate herbicide and Bt pesticide traits will be entering the public domain very soon. The speaker, of course, emphasized how much better their patented, second generation versions of these traits were. I know there's been a lot of concern about whether Monsanto would require farmers to destroy all seed with the original trait (they won't), but you all should know that the DNA sequence of these traits are freely available and I (and thousands of my colleagues) could walk into my lab any day of the week, build these DNA sequences, and stick them into any plant I wanted to easier than I can change the oil in my car.**** I'm sure there are some little seed companies doing this right now.

Also - Howard Jacobs, one of the plenary speakers, told a series of amazing, rambling stories on the frontiers of medical science - one of which seemed to involve forcing human somatic cells to become stem cells and then injecting them next to the liver of a mouse - which then (based on the types of cellular signals are present in that part of the body) induced the human stem cells to form a tiny, anatomically correct liver next to the mouse's liver... Our communications technology seems to have surpassed the original Star Trek and now, I guess, our medicine is getting close!

* As a total aside, our complementary notebooks contained high-quality paper that was marked "100% recycled." Since when can we make any paper 100% recycled?
** Roger Beachy once gave the example of a lab that tried to commercialize a strawberry that was resistant to Botrytis gray mold (i.e. why almost all supermarket strawberries are gross and go bad in a few days)
*** Companies are putting huge amounts of effort into finding new traits in natural germplasm - it's easier than reinventing the wheel and presents less of a regulatory/PR hurdle.
**** The oil plug bolt's all rounded off and the idiot mechanics at walmart always put it on with air


  1. Nice round-up. I'm with you on the cynicism inherent in cis-GM approaches, but let's face it, this really has never been about science, or public safety, or anything else. It is about perceptions, and flounder genes in a tomato, or whatever, are perceived differently than tomato genes in a tomato, no matter how those genes got there.

    On engineering the oil profile of soybeans, I have to disagree. If 2/3 of the fat in the US diet comes from soybeans, there's something wrong with the US diet, not with the soybeans.

  2. Yeah, there's no doubt there's a lot wrong with the U.S. diet.

    It's hard for me to believe that there really are people out there who still don't understand that living on fast food and no exercise is terrible for your body - but it must be true.

    It kinda strikes me as paternalistic to tell people what they should eat - but certainly no more than engineering their food behind their backs! Hopefully with enough education, everyone will at least understand the choices they're making - and if it's true that pretty much any traditional diet is healthy enough, it should be pretty easy for everyone to find something that works for them.

  3. Don't think I agree with your take on GMOs. I'm tired of companies selling non-food junk; tired of the sick, obese people around me eating this non-food junk.

    Why should we believe that companies selling GMOs are going to act any more in our interest than they have in the past? Look at the health of people around you eating the junk sold in supermarkets.

    Thanks for the heads up, though. Expanding my fruit and vegetable gardens again this year, so as to be less dependent on purchased food stuffs. Too bad I don't have any way to stop GMOs from crossing with my plants -- except distance.

  4. Hey Carol, thanks for the input!

    Companies never have (or will) act in the public interest - it's not their purpose. It's up to us as active citizens to make sure that our government enforces whatever regulations we need to have the society we want.

    Genetic engineering is simply a tool and has no inherent morality. Automotive engineering, to most people, is synonymous with oil burning SUVs but can also be used make Tesla roadsters and long-distance solar-powered cruisers.

  5. I read, "It's up to us to rely on majority rule (51% of active voters, or higher) to make others assimilate into these common denominators, high or low".

    Why rely on middle-"men", ie politicians, to suggest a single vote as if representative of thousands or millions of individuals?
    Why not *instead* think, "It's up to each as adult individuals to take full responsibility for hir actions by educating oneself, sharing advice openly (building a reputation, good or bad), and accepting the personal consequences of actions. Actually BE responsible!"

  6. Jack - could you clarify your comment? Are you suggesting we have excessive biotech and food regulation in the US?

    I'm generally pretty happy with biotech and food safety regs in the US. Europe is trigger happy with the precautionary principle and many developing countries allow big companies to poison their citizens over and over again - but the US seems to have a pretty pragmatic, take-things-as-they-go approach.

  7. Hi MAT kinase,
    Thanks for asking for clarification.
    To answer, "Are you suggesting we have excessive biotech and food regulation in the US?"
    "Excessive" will be difficult to define, so I'll ignore the word as not useful; to the point, no -- I was suggesting movement in the opposite direction b/c I would be much happier to thereby encourage my local, continental, and global fellow humans to (consequently learn to) take full-responsibility for their actions (self-directed education, open sharing of info w/ Wakfer-style Value 4 Value efforts, accepting personal consequences of acting) when such parental protections are not expected, relied upon.

    Reading more closely of this site, I recognize: big companies are bad, governments are owners of citizens in order to protect from dog-eat-dog types, etc., so I will stop here as I think our [perceptions of conditions] are fundamentally different.
    Sorry for the interruption; I understand and agree you may delete my comments if they do not suit your site.

  8. I don't understand... Do you think I'm saying that governments "own" their citizens? I think it's pretty clear that my position is the opposite.

    Anyway, I encourage diverse opinions on this site so I hope you continue to add yours!



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