Friday, October 29, 2004

Genetic engineering and the latest human gene count

Last week scientists unveiled the latest human gene count which lowered previous estimates further. Now, why do I mention genetic engineering in the headline of this post? It's because the safety of genetic engineering (and here I'm speaking particularly about genetically engineered crops) is based on a very important assumption which the human gene count has completely blown out of the water. That assumption is as follows: each gene is responsible for creating one and only one protein for an organism.

That assumption originally led to the prediction that the human genome would have about 100,000 genes because humans produce about 100,000 proteins. Well, the count has now been slashed to between 20,000 and 25,000. That means that a single gene can be responsible for making several different proteins under different conditions.

What does this say about the safety of genetically modified crops? The creators of such crops have told us that they are completely safe because the genes inserted in those crops will produce only one specific protein. That claim can no longer be made. The truth is the no one knows exactly what proteins might be produced by any gene inserted into a plant, and since no testing of GMO crops is required, no one is testing for this. These new genes may well produce toxins which have never been seen before. (In fact, there is strong evidence that just such a phenomenon occurred in the production of tryptophan, an amino acid supplement, which poisoned thousands in the United States and left many crippled. The production process used a genetically modified strain of bacteria. Subsequent testing revealed novel toxins that were extremely poisonous even at very tiny concentrations.)

Moreover, the methods by which genes are introduced into plant cells are imprecise. They are essentially shot into the cells with a gene gun in hopes that some of them will stick. In the process damage may be done to other parts of the plant's DNA and dormant DNA may be awakened to produce proteins not normally associated with the plant.

For an excellent and clear account of this and other problems related to the genetic engineering of crops, see Seeds of Deception by Jeffrey Smith.

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