ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

7 June 2002


1. Bitter Harvest - programme details
2. Denial Continues over Horizontal Gene Transfer - ISIS


1. Bitter Harvest - programme details

Bitter Harvest is a series of 3 programmes that will go out at 8pm to 8.50pm on BBC TWO television on the 16th, 23rd and 30th of June.

New Lords of Creation/Bitter Harvest

1.  Out of Eden

This new series tells the inside story of the most controversial technology in recent years- genetically modified food. The film-makers talked to the scientists who dream of transforming the world, the industrialists who believe it will become the richest and most powerful
global business, the activists who fight to stop them, and the farmers whose fields have turned into battlegrounds.

Out of Eden includes the first revolutionary experiments and bitterly fought over field trials, the race to produce the world's first GM food, and the rise of Monsanto - the chemical giant  which gambled all to become the dominating force in biotechnology in the 21st Century.

Researcher Kate Carter
Executive Producer Glynn Jones

2 Bitter Harvest

The second part of the inside story of probably the most powerful technology ever developed.

Having conquered America the giant biotech companies such as Monsanto set their sights on Europe. They expected a walk-over, but the arrival of genetically modified foods became the most controversial issue in living memory. Ships were intercepted, fields trashed, supermarkets disrupted, politicians accosted by naked demonstrators, a trade war threatened, and a giant global corporation was brought to its knees.

Producer Katherine Quarmby
Executive Producer Glynn Jones

3 On the Eight Day

The last part of the series on biotechnology looks to the future. The first wave of genetically modified foodstuffs caused massive controversy, but scientists hope that upcoming products such as obesity cures, and healthy nicotene free cigarettes will win acceptance. Drugs including possible cures for cancer will be grown in plants. But will we accept their plans for animals - goats crossed with spiders, chickens and fish with human genes? Could this be the next battleground?

Producer David Street
Executive Producer Glynn Jones
Sunday 16 June 2002
Bitter Harvest
8.00-8.50pm BBC TWO

The inside story of GM foods
Bitter Harvest tells the inside story of possibly the most powerful technology every developed - biotechnology - and the revolution it has
wrought on the food industry.

The first programme, Out of Eden looks back to San Francisco in 1972 and the first revolutionary experiments. First hand accounts tell how scientists dreamt of transforming the words, how industrialists saw the potential for the richest and most powerful global business, and how activists fought to stop them. Contributors include Professors James Watson, Stanley Cohen and Paul Berg, with Jeremy Rifkin and Earle Harbison, ex-Monsanto President.

Frostban, designed to protect fruit from frost, drew the first salvo from the protest groups. Andy Caffrey's  Earth First group succeeded
in trashing the first crop of treated strawberries, but the farmer and his colleagues simply replanted them. Andy gave voice to public unrest. "When I first heard that a company in Berkley was planning to release this bacteria in my community," he says, " I literally felt a knife go into me.  Here once again, for a buck, science, technology and corporations were going to invade my body with now a new bacteria that hadn't existed on the planet before.  It had already been invaded by smog, by radiation, by toxic chemicals in my food, and I just wasn't going to take it any more."

Just a decade later, the Flavr Savr tomato went down in history as the first GM food to enjoy success.  But while many farmers welcome help to produce trouble free crops, opponents argue that biotechnology does nothing to improve food and nutrition but is a cynical ploy to make money. The industry has flourished in the States, but will it dominate world agriculture in the 21st century?  The next programme, Seeds of Anger, finds out what happened when GM grain arrived in Britain.

The background to GM food, the science and the controversy is found in detail on, part of BBC Gene Stories.


2. Denial Continues over Horizontal Gene Transfer

ISIS Report, 7 June 2002

BBC drama, Fields of Gold, portraying the health risks of GM crops was subjected to astonishing attack and vilification orchestrated from within the heart of the scientific establishment. Why? Because it dares mention the forbidden H word. The drama suggests that antibiotic resistant genes could jump species from crops to animals and humans, leading to an outbreak of a "superbug". This is horizontal gene transfer, genes going across species barriers, a taboo subject among proponents of GM crops. But it does happen, says Dr. Mae-Wan Ho.

Fields of Gold is broadcast BBC1 at 9.05 pm Saturday and Sunday (8th & 9th June)

"Horizontal gene transfer" doesn't quite trip off the tongue as easily as "feeding the world" in the debate on GM crops. But when it comes to balancing cost versus benefit, the former definitely tips the scale in potential hazards against any potential benefit that GM crops can offer. It is not as if people are starving because they haven't got GM crops, whereas horizontal gene transfer can kill. And there is much more evidence to suggest that horizontal gene transfer from GM crops can happen than there is that GM crops can feed the world.

Genetic modification is nothing but assisted horizontal gene transfer. And it can happen even when not assisted. There is such a lot of selective citing of negative evidence, even denial and explaining away of positive findings that some of us have taken the trouble to collect the positive, incriminating evidence together [1-6].

For example, laboratory experiments have shown that DNA isolated from a range of GM crops can transfer an antibiotic resistance marker gene to soil bacteria [7]. In the only field study carried out so far, transgenic DNA was found to persist in the soil two years after the GM crop has been harvested. Parts of the transgenic DNA were found in some batch cultures of bacteria from the soil, even though the actual strain of bacteria cannot be isolated, which is not surprising, as less than 1% of the bacteria can be cultured [8]. Microcosm experiments further showed that transgenic DNA added to soil, was taken up by soil bacteria. Other studies suggest that gene transfer may occur via GM pollen and dust to bacteria in the mouth and respiratory tract of animals including human beings [9,10]. These and other findings have simply been ignored and dismissed by a 'cautious'(!) interpretation that eschews any and all positive results.

Can animal cells take up transgenic DNA? A research team in the Institute of Genetics, University of Cologne, Koln, Germany, was the first to draw attention to the fate of DNA in ingested food. They fed mice DNA, either from the bacterial virus M13, or the cloned gene for the green fluorescent protein inserted into a plasmid. They found that large fragments of the DNA can be traced from the intestinal contents, via the gut wall, the Peyer's patches and white blood cells, to the spleen and the liver. When fed to pregnant mice, the DNA passed via the placenta to fetuses and newborn animals.

In a recent experiment [11], the team compared the fate of soybean DNA from soybean leaves, with transgenic plasmid DNA containing green fluorescent protein linked to viral promoters from the human cytomegalovirus (HCMV), the Simian virus (SV40) or Rous Sarcoma virus (RSV). Soybean DNA was tracked by probing for the presence of the plant-specific, nucleus-encoded ribulose-1,5-biphosphate carboxylase (Rubisco) gene.

They found that the plant gene, or fragments of it, can be recovered in the intestine from 2h up to 49 h after feeding, and in the caecum, for up to 121h after ingestion. Thus, plant-associated naturally fed DNA is much more stable in the intestinal tract than naked DNA. In a total of 37 soybean leaf-fed mice, the DNA from liver and spleen were investigated for the presence of Rubisco DNA. The DNA was found in three organs in two animals.

In experiments where the plasmid containing transgenic GFP- DNA were fed to mice, however, a much higher proportion of the DNA were present in liver, spleen, kidney, blood, and in the intestinal wall, just 3 to 8 hr. afterwards. The numbers varied from a low of 3 out of 16 to 5 out of eight, the total over 8 experiments was 28 out of 87.

The researcher noted that far greater amounts of transgenic DNA were fed, typically 50 micrograms, equivalent to 1013 copies compared with about 6x108 copies of the Rubisco gene. But then, according to their findings, plant-associated DNA was much more stable and resistant to breakdown, remaining in the gut far longer.

When injected into muscle, the green fluorescent protein DNA fragments can be amplified by PCR for up to 17 months afterwards, and from DNA from organs remote from the site of injection up to 24h after injection, and from intestinal contents 6h after injection. This indicates that transgenic DNA can circulate around the body.

Why didn't they do the obvious experiment, which is to feed transgenic plant material to the mice and probe for both a plant gene and the transgene? Perhaps no biotech company will provide the transgenic plant material for such experiments. In fact, this obvious experiment appears to have been avoided altogether, so the denial can continue. Absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

The only comfort one can draw from this latest experiment is that mice continuously fed daily with the transgenic green fluorescent protein DNA for 8 generations did not become transgenic, so there is no germline transmission of DNA from ingested DNA. Your unborn children need not worry, even though you do.

References marked with * are for sale from ISIS. Enquiries:

1. Ho MW, Traavik T, Olsvik R, Tappeser B, Howard V, von Weizsacker C, McGavin G. Gene technology and gene ecology of infectious diseases. Microb. Ecol. Health Dis. 1998, 10, 33-59.*
2. Ho MW. Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare? Gateway, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1998, (2nd ed.)1999.
3. Traavik T. Too early may be too late. Ecological risks associated with the use of naked DNA as a biological tool for research, production and therapy. Research report for Directorate for Nature Management, Norway, 1999.
4. Ho MW. Horizontal Gene Transfer. The Hidden Hazards of Genetic Engineering, TWN Biotechnology Series, Third World Network, 2001.*
5. Ho MW, Ryan A. Cummins J. and Traavik T. Slipping Through the Regulatory Net: 'Naked' and 'Free' Nucleic Acids, TWN Biotechnology Series, Third World Network, 2001.*
6. Ho MW and Ryan A. Horizontal Gene Transfer, ISIS Reprints, March 2001, Institute of Science in Society, London.*
7. De Vries, J., and Wackernagel, W. (1998) Detection of nptII (kanamycin resistance) genes in genomes of transgenic plants by marker-rescue transformation. Mol. Gen. Genet. 257: 606-613.
8. Gebhard, F., and Smalla, K. (1999) Monitoring field releases of genetically modified sugar beets for persistence of transgenic plant DNA and horizontal gene transfer. FEMS Microbiol. Ecol. 28: 261-272.
9. Mercer DK, Scott KP, Bruce-Johnson WA, Glover LA and Flint JH. Fate of free DNA and transformation of the oral bacterium Streptococcus gordonii DL1 by plasmid DNA in human saliva. Applied and Environmental Microbiology 1999, 65, 6-10.
10. Duggan PS, Chambers PA, Heritage J and Forbes JM Survival of free DNA encoding antibiotic resistance from transgenic maize and the transformation activity of DNA in ovine saliva, ovine rumen fluid and silage effluent. FEMS Microbiology Letters 2000, 191, 71-7.
11. Hohlweg U. and Doerfler W. On the fate of plant or other foreign genes upon the uptake in food or after intramuscular injection in mice. Mol Genet Genomics 2001, 265, 225-33.\par
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