Tuesday, May 4, 2010

a Call for Translational Genetic Engineering

Anti-GM activists love to point out how the much-hyped promises of genetic engineering never really came to pass, and they're absolutely correct - we've had this technology for 25 years and have almost nothing to show for it. The thing is, many of these game-changing, high-tech crops have been created, they just haven't been released.

Dennis Gonsalves, famous for the transgenic fruit that saved the Hawaiian papaya industry,* spoke recently on campus. The approach he used to create transgenic virus resistance has been proven for years and yet virtually no resistant crop varieties have been released - which is especially tragic given the many crippling viral diseases of the developing world.

Dennis' experiences illuminate some reasons behind this.

Don't wait for your variety to be perfect
The photo above is from his first greenhouse trial after transforming the papaya on the left with novel virus resistance. Conventional wisdom dictates that the next step would have been years of tests and breeding to produce the best possible version - but by then (with additional years required for regulation) the papaya industry would have been wiped out and there'd be no farmers left to adopt the resistant varieties.

Don't overthink it

Learning to navigate regulation was much more complex and difficult than Dennis could have imagined. He repeatedly asserted that it was best to be a little naive and overly optimistic and just jump in with both feet. There are always people who "know" that you won't be able to get your variety through regulation or that the public won't accept it, but the truth is you never really know until you try.

Don't miss cultural opportunities
He also emphasized opportunities that arise from cultural issues. Hawaiian papaya farmers were desperate for a cure for papaya ringspot disease and were eager to try the transgenic variety. Furthermore, this population (many of who were of Asian and Japanese birth) had a sophisticated understanding of the Japanese consumer and fruit market. Their industry organization was therefore able to make great inroads into the Japanese papaya market.

Although regulation of transgenic crops is extremely rigorous in Japan, it's also apolitical. When transgenic papayas were found in loads of putatively non-transgenic Hawaiian papayas twice, Japanese regulators worked with the Hawaiian industry to establish proper identity preservation systems. If the same had happened in Europe, it surely would have led to a scandal and a ban on all Hawaiian papayas. As it stands now, Japanese approval of the transgenic variety is expected this year, 12 years after the process was initiated.

Dennis also described his disappointing failure to get virus-resistant papaya approved in Thailand, where this fruit is a core part of the traditional diet. Despite promising field trials, interested farmers and a rapidly growing virus epidemic, the Thai government has vacillated with moratoriums on transgenic field tests (largely thanks to Greenpeace protesters who broke into one of his test plots). It's unclear whether the government will lift the current research ban.

Overall he emphasized the importance for scientists to take this process into their own hands and really be tenacious.* It's not easy to usher a variety through the regulatory process, but it's profoundly important. Paraphrasing Dennis, 12 years from now, no one will read your articles, but your crop may help feed a nation.

*I should emphasize that the Hawaiian papaya "industry" consists of indigenous and immigrant family farms, hand-tended on small plots of land.
**As opposed to giving away control to a company or, more commonly, never doing anything with it at all.
Interestingly, an audience members asked what difficulties he had with corporate patents (as they key technologies required for genetic engineering are all patented by companies such as Monsanto). He said that on the contrary, companies provided absolutely no obstacles to his work. This sector was trivial to the big seed companies anyway and, more importantly, they've learned over the past two decades that their profits depend on good communication with the public, especially with altruistic projects like transgenic papaya.


  1. Wonderful post, thank you! (And I so hope you will continue to post on the topic of genetic engineering!)

  2. Hey Mat, another question for you: to what extent does glyphosate linger in the soil after roundup-ready crops are grown? Does it prevent farmers from switching back to conventional crops the following season? Thank you.

  3. I'm a different Matt, but the average half-life of glyphosate in soil is about 50 days, with pretty wide variance depending on conditions. My guess is that there's not much left over the next season.

  4. Thanks Matt! I spent some time trying to find that info but failed. Do you happen to have a citation? I couldn't find any pesticide regs, etc that contained that specific info (though they overall considered the environmental impact to be minimal).

  5. I started to write a comment to this thoughtful post which turned into a short essay(!) which I have posted here: http://www.genomicgastronomy.com/blog/papaya/

    Basically, I wanted to emphasize the wide range of nuance and subtlety in criticisms and advocacy for GE varieties, and warn against generalizing the views of various stakeholders.

    My comments can be summed up by this recent quote from SCIENCE:

    "Our view is that genetic modification is a potentially valuable technology whose advantages and disadvantages need to be considered rigorously on an evidential, inclusive, case-by-case basis: Genetic modification should neither be privileged nor automatically dismissed.

    We also accept the need for technology to gain greater public acceptance and trust before it can be considered as one among a set of technologies that may contribute to improved global food security."

    - H. Charles Gadfray et al. "Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People"

    (But I hope you get a chance to read the essay as well and let me know if there are any glaring errors).

  6. I am wondering about this new development in Papaya breeding affects these arguments: http://agro.biodiver.se/2011/02/papaya-protected-from-virus-by-wild-relative/ particularly the statement that "GM was not the right solution because each virus strain implied a costly transformation (including patent rights), and the virus is highly variable."

  7. I don't have access to the article, but broad resistance is always better than specific resistance. If the bred-in locus confers resistance to ALL strains while the transgenic locus only confers resistance to a single strain, than the bred-in locus is simply a better hammer. I wouldn't assume this to be the case however, though his colleague seems to imply it is.

    Otherwise, you're probably better off with the transgenic. It's more or less straightforward to make transgenic plants resistant to different strains of a virus, but you can't use natural resistance loci if they don't exist or they haven't been discovered yet. Furthermore, I don't think it'd be more expensive to pay a lab tech to play with plasmids and tissue culture for a couple years than it would be to pay a breeder to make and evaluate crosses for several years. Either way, it'll cost you a few hundred thousand dollars (mostly in salaries and benefits), but the value of the papaya industry (and the subsistence farmers depending on it) is certainly MUCH higher.

    Patent application and the royalties required for transgenic techniques are both expensive, but any non-profit effort to produce resistant lines for the public good shouldn't need to pay for either.

    I'd bet Monsanto would produce a suite of resistant lines pro bono just for the PR.

  8. Genetic Engineering is the area which attract lot of people around the world.Even I was looking for some details on this topic..I like your post a lot as it answer several question of mine..This technique will be very helpful for the future prospect also..Suggestions you given here should be taken into account..



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