ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
19 December 2002


1. Vatican doesn’t back GM foods
2. Scientists Ask: What Is A Gene, Anyway?


1. Vatican doesn’t back GM foods

Subject: Re: GM-ACT: Vatican backs GM foods
Date: Thu, 19 Dec 2002 12:06:34 +0000
From: Martin Haggerty <>

Archbishop Martino - who is an arch-conservative within the Catholic Church and a pompous self-publicist - has expressed his pro-GM opinion before this occasion, but we must interpret it only as his personal view, not the Vatican's policy. The headline misrepresents the case: the Vatican does not have a policy concerning GM food and farming. The Pope is personally opposed to it, and has said so, but even his view is not the official teaching of the Church.

I for one would like the Church to pronounce against GM food and farming,  and I am doing what lobbying I can for this end, but in the meantime we  should be wary of sensationalist headlines and sloppy journalism. I agree  with Marshall Chrostowski's analysis of the situation in so far as he  identifies widespread opposition to GM among the religious orders and  parochial clergy, especially in the Third World, whilst the senior  hierarchy tends to be accommodating towards temporal powers, whether  governments or corporations, therefore reluctant to take a stand on this  issue.

Despite their lack of veracity, such reports as this must certainly  encourage the biotech lobby as well as disappointing me and other anti-GM  campaigners, especially those of us who are Catholics. We must put the  record straight on such occasions.

Best wishes,

At 04:10 18/12/2002 +0000, you wrote:
>[The US Government seems to have persuaded the Vatican that African nations must accept GM food aid or starve - which is the ultimatum offered by USAID - even though 70% of US maize and 95% of world grain surpluses are non-GM. If the US, like all other nations, gave cash aid instead of 'tied' food aid then this non-GM grain could easily be accessed. Is anyone in a position to give the true facts to the Vatican?.]
>Vatican backs GM foods


2.Scientists Ask: What Is A Gene, Anyway?

18 December 2002
By Matthew Herper

NEW YORK - Two years after the human genome was mapped, scientists are drawing a stunning insight by comparing human genes with those of mice. Their conclusion? Researchers now agree human genes are definitely missing something; they're just not entirely sure what. Figuring it out could involve arguments about the very definition of the word 'gene.'

Almost as soon as the government-funded Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics released their maps of human DNA, some researchers complained the two projects had undercounted the number of genes needed to make a human being. The HGP and Celera both said there were 30,000 protein-coding genes, a mere one-third of previous estimates. Researchers at Novartis and the Scripps Institute in La Jolla, Calif., quickly pointed out, however, that the Celera and HGP collections didn't overlap--perhaps meaning that both were missing genes.

Earlier this month, scientists unveiled an analysis of the mouse genome in Nature. Many of the same researchers who had mapped the human genome participated in the project. Comparing mouse and human DNA is a source of tremendous insight. The genes of mice and human beings have been conserved by evolution, partly because changes to genes are lethal. By contrast, unimportant DNA changes randomly. If mouse and human DNA were lined up, the genes should leap out like so many highlighted words.

"We're peeking in evolution's lab notebook," said Eric Lander, head of the Whitehead/MIT Genome Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on a conference call at the time of the announcement. Lander was a driving force in both government-funded genome projects.

Lander and his colleagues say evolution's lab book points to only 30,000 genes--if a gene is defined as a stretch of DNA that codes for one of the proteins from which the body is built. But those genes only account for about half of the DNA that evolution saved. In other words, scientists have been looking at the book of life and identifying all the nouns but missing the verbs. The problem: Nobody understands what this important stuff does. "We don't know," said Lander, "and that's really exciting."

Other scientists are skeptical to rush labeling vast areas of undiscovered DNA as not being genes. Most genes are recipes the body uses to make proteins. But before a gene can make a protein, it must be transcribed onto a molecule called RNA. Researchers at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Affymetrix published a paper showing there is more RNA being made than can be accounted for with 30,000 protein-coding genes. Scientists at Rosetta Inpharmatics, which is part of Merck, have done similar work.

"While it's probably true that it's premature to call these things formal genes," says Tom Gingeras, vice president of biological research at Affymetrix, "it's clear that there is more transcription going on than can be pointed to by the annotations for protein-coding genes."

It's possible, Gingeras says, that many of these RNA-coding regions regulate how genes make proteins--a function that could make them very important. But any speculation as to what all this DNA does is really only guesswork. The most enticing possibility, perhaps: There are genes that function in ways no one has yet imagined.

In the past year, scientists have discovered that a new kind of gene --one Lander and his colleagues would not have recognized--is present in the genomes of many animals. These genes make RNA that, instead of making a protein, works to keep other RNA floating in the cell from making proteins. In effect, these new genes muffle or silence other genes.

"The caution is that this is not going to explain even 1% of what these conserved regions are," cautions David Bartel of MIT's Whitehead Institute, who has done much of the work on gene silencing. But it turns out to be an important 1%. Bartel and his colleague, MIT professor Phillip Sharp, have started a privately held company, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, which makes drugs that function like these new silencing genes. Sharp, who co-founded biotech bellwether Biogen sees the new technology as one of the most promising ways of designing drugs to come along in years.

It has been said, again and again, that mapping the genome was just the beginning of figuring out how genes work. Now, as scientists venture forth into our DNA, they can't really be sure what they're going to bring back.

As Shakespeare's Hamlet said: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

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