Date: 21 October 2000
SEEDS OF DISSENT FROM A LEADING BIOTECHNOLOGIST
The critics have repeatedly said that the knowledge base for GM is far too limited and that its underlying principle that individual genes control individual traits in a straightforward linear fashion is fatally simplistic. The critics have emphasised that the organisation of genes, of which our knowledge is profoundly limited, is what is actually critical to understanding the function of any particular gene within any particular organism.
The critics are, of course, repeatedly dismissed by the biotechnologists who claim (in public at least!) great precision in their knowledge and its application. Here, however, are some excerpts from a New Scientist interview with one of the pioneers of the "GM revolution", Richard Jefferson who heads CAMBIA, a non-profit plant biotechnology research centre in Canberra, and guess what? He’s saying very much the same thing.
Jefferson makes plain that someone needs to ride herd on the broad mass of biotechnologists who are, as he himself states, lemming-like in their behaviour and are failing to think through what it is that they are doing.
Curiously, as you’ll see if you look at the interview as a whole (url below), this analysis hardly leads Jefferson to adopt a cautious approach. He even boasts in the interview about plants CAMBIA is creating that will allow farmers to turn on and off individual genes in crop plants at will—and this after Starlink!!! Jefferson sees this as democratising plant biotechnology!
Similarly, Jefferson argues that there is no reason for concern about GM food safety given the fact that we do not seek to control peanuts which are a known allergen that kill hundreds of people every year. That might strike some as more of an argument for being wary of peanuts! It’s also a bit like saying we accept the sale of cigarettes, which are a massive killer, so why try and control the sale of anything else on the grounds that it might be dangerous. It might also be noted that a known allergen is a heck of a lot easier to deal with than potential unknown allergens produced by the insertion into foods of elements that have never previously been part of the human diet.
But despite the gung-ho attitude, the general drift of Jefferson’s comments is both interesting and surprising from within the biotech establishment. According to Jefferon, the creators of so-called smart plants are largely uncritical conformists in dire need of some smart thinking!
For how biotechnology can be applied creatively without any use of GM
Q: You launched CAMBIA a decade ago promising to do science differently. What’s the difference between CAMBIA’s approach to research and that at any other biotech lab?
A: There’s a tendency in science to ignore the development of methods and make it secondary to the elite act of gathering knowledge. Even a cursory inspection of the history of science will show that the vast majority of scientists exhibit a lemming-like tendency—which I’m told that lemmings do not have—to define problems in terms of what they can solve, not what needs to be solved...
Q: You’re a critic of that other holy grail: sequencing the genes of important crops like rice. Why?
A: Imagine the keys of a piano. There are 88 keys on a piano. But they tell me absolutely Nothing. I know what every key means but it doesn’t tell me how to do Beethoven. It doesn’t tell me how to do Brahms or Mozart. Yet all of that is locked up in those keys. The secret is not in the keys by themselves, but their combinations, the order, the duration and intensity. It’s the same way for genes. We’re not going to get to the secret that’s locked up in the genome from DNA sequencing. That’s just like looking at the keys of a piano. I sometimes liken DNA sequencing and the hugely fashionable work lumped into the term "genomics" to a drunk guy underneath a street light late at night. He’s crawling on his hands and knees looking for his car keys, when someone walks by and says, "Hey buddy, what are you up to?" The guy looks up at him and slurs. "Well, I’m looking for my car keys." The passer-by bends down to help and they both spend 10 minutes looking, when he says to the drunk: "Are you sure you dropped them here?" The drunk guy says, "Jeez no, buddy, I dropped them farther down the street but it’s too dark to see there." We’re doing DNA sequencing because we can do it, not because it’s going to necessarily give us what we want.
Q: But what about all the effort going into sequencing plant genomes, like rice and maize. Can’t it be put to good use?
A: Of course it will be put to use. But the question is:
is it anywhere near as useful as having a different style of doing science?
People will say: "Look at all the things that have come out." But
that’s because you have got lots and lots of people doing sequencing, and
lots and lots of money being thrown at it.
I’ll give you another example. There’s a great maize geneticist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison called John Doebley—I don’t even know him but his work’s great. He’s looking at the genetics of maize and teosinte, the ropy little weed-like thing that happens to be the very same species as the big, proud corn plant of the American Midwest. It turns out that almost all the differences between the two are caused by only a few genes, and a huge amount of the difference in shape between the two plants is associated with just one, single gene. After exhaustive back-crossing, Doebley sequenced that gene and what did he find? Much to everyone’s amazement, he found that the protein sequence of the teosinte gene is exactly the same as in the maize gene. There was a difference between the two, of course, and that was in the way each gene was expressed. In other words, how each gene regulates other genes. But you’d never find that information from a gene sequence.
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