Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Books and cats

Just finishing up Sue Hubbell's, Shrinking the Cat. Enjoyable. Not really about genetic engineering per se, but just a lot of stories about how we've been messing with genes for a long time and modern techniques are really just a refinement of the same old thing we've always been doing.

Lots of interesting historical and scientific trivia, which is fun. For instance, I didn't know that a Siamese cat's fur is heat sensitive. It gets darker when the mercury drops. They're warm at birth so they come out pure white. That's pretty cool.

And apples have really complex genetics, so apple trees planted from seeds will almost never produce apples similar to the apple the seed came from, which is why apple orchards are always the result of grafting a piece of a successful apple tree onto a root stock. No surprises that way.

One thing that I thought was really cool: some cat breeders tried - unsuccessfully - to produce a cat with an ocelot coat pattern. That would be totally awesome! I'll bet it could be done with modern genetic engineering techniques. Can you imagine: a cat that looks like an ocelot, a leopard, a tiger, or a lion! How cool would that be?

Just throw in some fur phosphorescence from an octopus gene and that would be one awesome pet.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Eco-mafia

Steve Milloy has an important piece on the strong-arm tactics of the environmental group, Rainforest Action Network. Typically, the victims will be the powerless and poor:
RAN activists put up old-fashioned Wild West-type "Wanted" posters featuring Mr. Harrison as "Billy the Kid." The posters criticized the bank for "reckless investment in environmentally and socially destructive projects in dozens of countries" and urged Mr. Harrison's neighbors and friends to "ask him to do the right thing."

“The real targets — the victims — of all these campaigns are the world’s poorest children and families,” point out Niger Innis and Paul Driessen of the
Congress of Racial Equality. “Their countries are deprived of investment dollars to generate electricity, create jobs, improve health, education and nutrition, build modern homes and businesses, and instill hope for the future,” add Innis and Driessen.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Prakash interview 4

Interview with Dr Prakash, continued...

BNB: What is it like doing genetics research on plants? Do researchers usually work alone or on teams?

Dr Prakash: It is very exciting and satisfying. Yes, most researchers now not only work in big teams in lab but are also very multidisciplinary involving not only molecular biologists but also protein chemists, bioinformatic specialists, agronomists, ecologists, food scientists plus also lawyers. Many involve multiple institutions often across continents.

BNB: What is your area of specialty?
Dr Prakash: My speciality was plant tissue culture and transformation where my early work involved devloping suitable methods for introducing genes into sweetpotato and testing. Now, it is more focused on developng GM plants with enhanced protein quality and content, and testing them.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Prakash Interview 3

Continuing with my interview with Dr. C. S. Prakash, Professor in Plant Molecular Genetics and Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University...

BNB: Do you know of specific research by public or private organizations that has been abandoned because of concerns about public acceptance of genetically engineered food?
Dr Prakash: I can name dozens but just look at the absolute lack of commercial GM products released by public sector (universities or USDA) except for papaya. In Europe, practically all agbiotech companies have packed and left.
BNB: Do you think research in this area has suffered because of the rhetoric and junk science of some environmental and anti-corporate groups?

Dr Prakash: Certainly. The orchestrated opposition to agbiotech from the green groups have had a terrible impact already leading to curtailed research, low morale among researchers, reduced funding for research and downsizing of corporate labs.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Prakash Interview 2

More of my interview with Dr. C. S. Prakash, Professor in Plant Molecular Genetics and Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University...

BNB: I've read that Monstanto has a patent on a technique that uses a specific virus to implant genetic material in a cell's nucleus. Are there other techniques for accomplishing this transfer?

Dr Prakash: In plants, the primary means of introducing genes into cells is using a bacterium called Agrobacterium which is a natural genetic engineer. Scientists have tamed this organism and adapted it to deliver the genes into plant cells.

Another method particularly useful for cereals such as corn and rice is a device called Gene Gun which literally shoots DNA coated microscopic-pellets into plant cells.

BNB: What do you think is the most promising new genetic engineering research being done today? How will people benefit from this research?
Dr Prakash: I would say two areas. One - development of better foods with enhanced nutrients such as golden rice. This can help both the industrialized and developing countries. Nutraceuticals with enhanced protein, healthier oils, foods with cancer-fighting compounds are all of interest to the affluent. Developing countries can benefit from these too but more importantly from genetically foritified foods (such as Goldenrice).

Two- development of hardier crops with improved resilience to factors such as drought, heat, saline and alkaline soils, flooding etc. Farming is a struggle against nature in much of the developing world, and thus plagued with poor productivity and uncertain output. Biotech can help bring stability to farming by helping develop hardier crops.

Stay tuned! More to come...!

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Prakash Interview

Dr. C. S. Prakash, Professor in Plant Molecular Genetics and Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University, graciously consented to an interview.

Its a bit long, so I'll post it in several pieces...

BNB: How did you get started in this work? What motivated you to devote so much of your life to this work?

Dr Prakash: Growing up in India, I was fascinated by plants and got interested in farming also because of my grandfather who was an agricultural extension agent. I studied agriculture, and then majored in genetics because of the impact Green Revolution had in improving farming in India at that time. Gradually I learnt biotechnology techniques as I recognized the importance of these tools in plant breeding.

I am devoting considerable time to outreach and educational aspects of biotech than research lately primarily because I am concerned that much of the biotech potential in impoving farming and food will not be realized because of the opposition to this technology by vested interests.

BNB: What are you most excited about in the world of agricultural biotechnology today? Can you give a few examples?

Dr Prakash: The most exciting part has been the impact of GM crops on the environment such as reduction in the use of pesticides (about 50 million pounds of pesticides are saved annually in the US alone!) by using Bt cotton and corn, plus the conservation of soil because of herbicide-tolerant crops.

But this is only tip of the iceberg as many future products being developed right now in the labs would have far reaching implications on the food and environment.

This is just the beginning of a great interview! More to come...

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Science-based regulation of AgBioTech

Some welcome good news on the crazy regulatory front.

Gregory Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute attended a workshop on the Impacts of Biotech Regulation on Small Business and University Research, sponsored by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology and the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

While it is not all good news, Conko does have some encouraging developments to report in "The Cost and Consequences of Current Biotech Regulation" at AgBioWorld.

It is a relief that finally, "the broad ranging discussion included everything that I have argued previous Pew conferences and publications lacked: Participation was dominated by highly qualified and fair dealing experts, not philosophically motivated opponents."

Conko goes on to give some (mostly) heartening details about the discussion and subsequent report by the Pew Initiative:

Much of the discussion placed the relative risks of rDNA modification in the appropriate context of the similar or identical risks that occur in one or another of the so-called "classical" breeding methods. Indeed, this is reflected (though weakly) in the proceedings' repeated mention of the views held by many (perhaps a majority) of the participants that

(1) the current regulatory methodology, which regulates each transformation event rather than crop/trait combinations, is scientifically unsound, and

(2) the cost of complying with the current regulatory scheme means that many safe and potentially beneficial rDNA-modified products never make it to market, to the detriment of consumers and the environment.

Even after all this, the regulators insist on holding on to the non sequitur that, "individual gene construct insertions (that is, each transformation event) could have negative health or ecological impacts, as though this were in some way unique to rDNA techniques."

It is amazing to me that the science is not obvious to the regulators. Are they blinded by ideology or is it merely bureaucratic inertia? Or are they just too lazy to try to understand the science?

Conko concedes that, by itself, the question isn't totally out of line. But given our current depth of knowledge and experience with the technology, we now know that it is not, or should not be, an issue of concern for regulators for a couple of reasons (at least). First of all:

It is well known to plant geneticists that the movement of transpositional elements in sexual reproduction poses a risk that is essentially identical to the insertional mutation risk of rDNA transformation.
And second:

The gross genetic alterations that occur with mutation breeding and tissue culture techniques are arguably of much greater significance than the insertional effects of rDNA-modification.

Conko is saying here that there is no more risk inherent in modern rDNA-modification techologies than natural sexual reproduction. And there's even less risk than the genetic effects caused by other, essentially unregulated "traditional" technologies such as mutation breeding and tissue culture techniques which have been used for decades to produce a wide variety of plants without anyone worrying about chicken-little genetic doomsday scenarios.

In stark contrast with the blatant ignorance of regulators,

Several participants at the Pew/APHIS workshop noted repeatedly that the very foundation upon which the USDA and EPA regulatory schemes are built (that rDNA techniques pose unique risks compared with classical breeding methods) should be scrapped, and the framework changed to a tiered system in which the degree of regulatory scrutiny corresponds to the magnitude of risk.

What a concept! Base the regulation on true risks instead of myths and unfounded fears! What an amazing concept! According to Conko, this didn't make it into the proceedings. Big surprise there.

Conko informs us that -- another big surprise -- the conference focus was on "regulatory predictability and navigational assistance," which, translated from bureaucratese means, "we'll be glad to standardize our stupid, unscientific forms and regulations and provide all the help you need to fill out the reams of unnecessary paperwork we require in order to maintain the staffing level in our department to which we have become accustomed."

Rather than coddling the bureaucrats (should we be cuffing the bureaucrats? - now, now, let's be civil about this...), we should, as Conko points out, focus rather on "the more fundamental need for replacing process-based regulatory triggers with risk-based ones."

This concern for the bureaucrats over the science predictably results in the public -- that would be you and me -- getting the short end of the stick, as they say:

The costs to society of bad regulatory policy ... include the mis-allocation of scarce public resources that could be better spent on more productive endeavors as well as an enduring legal and perceptional bias against rDNA technology.
Translation: we're throwing our money away on self-serving, chicken-little civil servants instead of addressing some of our greatest needs.

Don't think we're spending enough on AIDs research? Multiple Sclerosis research? Arthritis research?

Maybe if we didn't spend God-knows how many thousands upon thousands of dollars attempting to overcome unnecessary regulatory friction that is protecting us from the phantom nightmares of eco-zealots and government paper-pushers we'd have a lot more to spend on such programs.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Critical Questions

This following is an extensive quote from 31 Critical Questions in Agricultural Biotechnology at AgBioWorld.org:

Question #4: How can GE ensure environmental sustainability as well as increase food production when pressure on environmental resources like land and water is growing?

There are two ways in which GE can help promote environmental sustainability. One way is to increase total food production, thereby making it unnecessary to put marginal or environmentally sensitive areas under plow. The other way is to employ crop production methods that place fewer burdens on the environment.


First, consider productivity. Growing more food on a given area of land means that for any level of output (whether it’s enough to feed six billion people today, or nine billion people in 50 years) more land is available for other purposes. That’s important, because adding new cropland has historically meant plowing under virgin wilderness area. Greater productivity can be achieved with a combination of processes, including more traditional methods, as described in the answer to Question 1 above. But GE technology is an important tool that allows agronomists to alter plants more quickly and more precisely than do older techniques.

Next, consider the ability to use less agricultural chemicals, including pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Rainwater tends to make these chemicals run-off farms into rivers, streams, and sensitive lands, sometimes upsetting the ecological balance of those systems. Agronomists know, however, that some crop plants, such as certain legumes, have the ability to "fix" nitrogen, absorbing it from the air. If we can splice the ability to fix nitrogen into other crop plants, we could reduce the need for synthetic chemical fertilizers and make a giant step in sustainability.

Similarly, if we can increase disease resistance in crop plants, that added trait would allow farmers to reduce the use of fungicides and improve no-till methods. Genetically engineered plants that are drought resistant, or enable the use of less toxic herbicides could also help achieve these goals. Glyphosate tolerance has shown itself to be a sound technology in this respect, as glyphosate is far less toxic than many other herbicides and becomes effectively inactive within a few days after spraying.

Spud Rx

Reuters reports on a potato that has been genetically engineered to produce a hepatitis vaccine that can be taken orally just by eating the potato: Potato Vaccine Offers Hope Against Hepatitis (Hat Tip: JunkScience).

What's the big deal? We can make the vaccine today using more traditional manufacturing techniques. Why genetically modify a plant to produce it?

According to the article, even though a vaccine has been available for hepatitis B for a decade, "Global mortality due to this disease is estimated to be 1 million cases per year."

A million people die every year worldwide even though we've had a vaccine for hepatitis B for ten years! Not to mention the 115 million people a year who are infected, according to the article (1996 estimate).

How can this be? Because:
"The hepatitis B shot must be kept refrigerated and it is expensive, meaning it cannot be used in many poor areas."
Refrigeration, that "bourgeois western luxury", as eco-pharisees call it, isn't important because it keeps beer cold. Refrigeration is indispensable if you want a healthy population because of the food-born illnesses it prevents and things like medication it can preserve.

However, since there are many, many (did I mention, many?) places around the world where refrigeration and clean hypodermic needles and trained medical professionals are non-existent, genetically modified plants designed to produce pharmaceutical products could eventually bring about a medical revolution for millions around the world who suffer and die from illnesses that rarely kill anyone in more developed countries.

In fact, many diseases have been completely eradicated in wealthier nations because they can afford to research, produce, distribute, refrigerate, and administer cutting-edge medications to their people. And also because they have access to a multitude of "unsustainable life-style habits" -- you know, those materialistic indulgences like refrigeration, clean drinking water and cheap, reliable sources of electricity for workplaces, hospitals, schools, and homes.

According to the article:

About 60 percent of the volunteers who ate the biggest dose of potatoes showed an immune response that should protect against infection with the hepatitis B virus.

Obviously the potato isn't ready for prime time just yet, but its a great and promising step in the right direction for many millions of people around the world.
"There is an urgent need to make oral vaccines available in poorer countries of the world where infectious diseases are still the primary cause of death," said Yasmin Thanavala, an immunologist at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in New York, who helped to lead the study.

And if the idea of eating a raw potato isn't appealing to you, don't despair.

"Members of the team are also working to grow vaccines in bananas, tomatoes and tobacco."

So maybe one day in a remote village in Africa, a mother will tell her children to "Eat a BioTech banana a day to keep the doctor away!"

Back in the saddle

Back from a short hiatus, your luminous lagomorph reporter on the exciting phenomenal and ever-accelerating advances in AgBioTech and energy production and the dangerous rhetoric of eco-imperialists worldwide is back on the job.

Even BioNuclear Bunniestm occasionally have to deal with the real world.