The Science of Sustainability

Frankenstein vs. Godzilla: What’s in Your Cereal Bowl?

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Why fear Frankenstein and not Godzilla?

In all of the recent discussion about genetically modified (GM) foods here in California, we’ve overlooked regular foods and how new traits are found (or created) in them. There isn’t usually a monk lovingly breeding peas in the Austrian countryside somewhere. Instead, more often than not, there is someone blasting a seed with radiation and/or harmful chemicals.

See, new traits come from differences in a plant’s genes. Plant breeders often use chemicals or radiation to create lots of new DNA differences in the plant they are interested in. The idea is that the more you mutate a plant’s DNA, the more likely you are to stumble on the DNA difference(s) you’re looking for. And this approach has worked.

For example, over 75% of the rice grown in California is a dwarf variety discovered this way. Same thing with different varieties of barley, peanuts, oats, wheat, and cocoa.

Sometimes radiation or chemicals are used to strengthen a trait that is already there too. The red grapefruit started out as a natural variety that lost its pink color with time. After zapping this variety’s seeds, scientists found a few that kept a deeper color of red. Now 75% of the grapefruits grown in Texas are this variety.

As you can see, this method has yielded many wonderful crop varieties. In fact, a lot of what we eat today is created through this process. But at the DNA level, it is a very messy affair. The genomes of these plants are often riddled with DNA mutations as a result.

Now I’m not bringing this up because this is bad. These foods have been around for a long time with no obvious side effects. No, I want to bring it up to contrast it with the way GM foods are made.

Instead of all the collateral genetic damage that comes with mutating the bejeezus out of a plant’s DNA, GM technology is much more elegant. A single gene is added to a plant’s DNA and the rest of its DNA is left untouched. This method gets around the potential problems of all of the mutational baggage caused by those chemicals and/or radiation.

This is why this debate about GM foods seems so weird. In one case we are all perfectly fine with food that has a large mutational load built into it but frightened or hesitant about the one with a single extra gene. We fear Frankenstein but are ok with Godzilla.

Again I am not saying that this mutated rice or barley or whatever is bad. I’m just saying that GM foods are, if anything, even more benign than these safe foods. If we follow the logic of Proposition 37 (which requires labeling of GM foods), should we also label these Godzilla foods as well? If Godzilla corn has more genetic damage than Frankencorn, which should be labeled?

Additional Links:

Recent Polling Suggests Prop 37 Could Go Either Way

NY Times article: Useful Mutants, Bred With Radiation

More About Golden Rice

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Category: Biology, Blog, Food, Health, Sustainable Food, Sustainable Health

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Dr. Barry Starr

About the Author ()

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • liza

    Nice post, Barry. And nice Mendel reference!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000980613760 Kevin Folta

    How much did Monsanto pay you to write this? Just kidding, but get ready for it. It is the standard line when you write an awesome piece that tells the truth about our food. Nice job.

  • Seralini

    This is a very naive, uninformed article.

    What makes you think that there is always only one gene inserted? Some are even multi-trait GMOs with multiple genetic modifications. Researchers from the University of Caen in France have found that the Cry1Ab protein, a Bt toxin deliberately produced in many GM crops, including Monsanto's MON810 Bt corn, destroys human cells at levels of 100 parts per million (ppm) dilution and higher.

    Some food plants are even modified to produce their own pesticides. What on earth would make you even imply that ingesting pesticides is a good idea?

    http://www.naturalnews.com/035093_GMO_genetic_traits_toxicity.htm
    http://www.enveurope.com/content/23/1/10

    • Charles Rader

      Actually (Seralini), Barry's post has only one small error, but it is essentially accurate. The error is this "A single gene is added to a plant’s DNA and the rest of its DNA is left untouched." At present, scientists do not have a foolproof method of inserting the extra gene so that the rest of the DNA is untouched. But this doesn't matter much to the rest of us because after the transformation, they know exactly where in the DNA the extra gene went, and if some other gene was disrupted, they just try all over again. And, of course, all those other mutational methods disrupt perhaps hundreds of genes.

      By the way, researchers at Caen means Gilles Eric Seralini, who literally makes his living writing about what's wrong with GMO plants, and who is regularly shown to be wrong by other scientists. Relying on Seralini to form your opinion of GMO food is something like relying on Karl Rove to form your opinion of President Obama.

      • Barry

        Thanks to both of you for catching my small error. I obviously know better since I have written about golden rice and it has two different genes inserted. I have also made my share of stable cell lines and know from experience that more than one copy can be inserted into a genome.

  • Barry
  • Barry

    Here is the full text of the anti-GMO activist recanting his former views because he discovered science: http://www.marklynas.org/2013/01/lecture-to-oxford-farming-conference-3-january-2013/