Genetic Engineering — Its global benefits now and beyond

Agriculture could be defined as the manipulation of plant and animal DNA to suit the needs of humans. We have been changing the DNA of our food for 10,000 years. For most of agricultural history, we’ve had no idea what DNA changes occurred in our food. The discovery of recombinant DNA technologies in the 1970s began to change that. For the past 20 years we have been using genetic engineering (GE) to engineer precise DNA changes in our food.

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Davao stakeholders updated on crop biotech and Philippine biosafety guidelines

Davao stakeholders updated on crop biotech and Philippine biosafety guidelines

Various key stakeholder groups: regulators, farmer leaders, students, scientists, academe, DA information officers, and members and officials of local government units of selected municipalities in Davao region in the Philippines learned about the science, food and environmental safety, and socioeconomic benefits of biotech crops, as well as the biosafetyregulatory guidelines in the country, during the Biotechnology 101 & Joint Department Circular (JDC) Public Briefing held on August 16, 2017 at The Pinnacle Hotel and Suites, Davao City.

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Are Biotech crops safe to eat?

 

ARE biotech crops, which are spliced with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), safe to eat?

Opponents, mostly composed of private individuals, non-governmental organizations and international activists, say they are not. Proponents—who are mostly scientists (including Nobel Prize winners), health officials and United Nations agencies—claim they are!

Now, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (Isaaa) just released its newest report, “Global Status of Commercialized/Biotech GM Crops: 2016”. The Isaaa brief is considered one of the most-cited references in the field of modern agri-biotechnology due to its credibility and accuracy.

“Biotech crops have now had an unblemished record of safe use and consumption for over 20 years,” the report pointed out.  “Future generations can benefit more from wide choices of biotech crops with improved traits for high yield and nutrition, as well as safe for food use and environment.”

Biotech crops are products of biotechnology, defined as “any technique that uses living organisms to make or modify a product, to improve plants or animals or to develop microorganisms for specific uses”.

The methodology seems like a work of fiction.  Listen to the words of Dr. Frank A. Shotkoski, an adjunct professor at the Cornell University in the College of Life Science Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics: “Traditional methods of crop improvement require the mixing of genes by making specific crosses, observing and selecting for specific phenotypes [traits] in the offspring.  This has been a very effective tool for crop improvement, and our ancestors have been quite successful in using these techniques to develop the productive, tasty and nutritious crops that we have today.”

But modern biotechnology completely changes that.  “Biotechnology allows us to introduce genes into crops that could never be achieved using traditional/conventional methods, because the gene tied to a specific trait (i.e., insect resistance, disease resistance, herbicide tolerance, etc.) doesn’t exist in species,” Shotkoski explained.  “Often, traits of interest can be introgressed into a crop much faster using biotechnology tools, such as marker-assisted breeding, gene transformation and/or gene editing.”

In recent years, modern biotechnology—through genetic engineering—has been used to increase plant and animal food production, to diagnose disease, improve medical treatment, produce vaccines and other useful drugs and to help dispose of industrial wastes.

Against hunger

“There is a lot that happens around the world we cannot control,” American Congressman Jan Schakowsky once said. “We cannot stop earthquakes, we cannot prevent droughts and we cannot prevent all conflict, but when we know where the hungry, the homeless and the sick exist, then we can help.”

Hunger is the physical sensation of desiring food. When politicians, relief workers and social scientists talk about people suffering from hunger, they usually refer to those who are unable to eat sufficient food to meet their basic nutritional needs for sustained periods of time.

But with the continuous number of people added annually to the current population, it is more likely that hunger will be a rule rather an exception.  “Population growth is going crazy,” Shotkoski pointed out.  “From 2 billion in 1935, it doubled to 4 billion in 1975.  By 2000 the world was home to 6 billion.  In 2030 there will be about 8 billion people inhabiting this planet.”

In addition, there are the issues of climate change: rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns.  “Climate change is a major challenge for agriculture and food security,” said Dr. Randy Hautea, Isaaa global coordinator.

Biotechnology is seen as a probable solution. “I see biotechnology as an important component of the many technologies and choices that we have available to provide food security, human nutrition and health for an ever-expanding population,” Shotkoski said.  “This is especially important for agriculture, where farmers are faced with many biotic and abiotic constraints, most of which can’t be dealt with using conventional technologies.”

In 1994 Calgene’s delayed-ripening tomato became the first GM food crop to be produced and consumed in an industrialized country.  In 1995 GM cotton and GM corn were subsequently commercialized.  Soon to be introduced in the country are the following: the GM eggplant and the vitamin A-rich golden rice.

A consumer advocacy group in UK reported that GM soya can be found in bread, biscuits, baby milk, baby foods, breakfast cereals, margarine, soups, pasta, pizza instant meals, meat products, flours, sweets, ice creams, crisps, chocolate, soy sauce, veggie-burgers, tofu, soya milk and pet foods.

In the Philippines, Filipinos may be eating GM foods, such as potato chips, corn cereals, or soya milk.  Love it or loathe it, transgenic food is set to become a bigger part of what people eat.

Health concerns

But Greenpeace, an anti-biotech organization, continues to take a preventive stance.  It cautioned that consumers can never be absolutely sure of the safety of biotech crops since this is only determined by decades of data and study.

Here are some concerns of those who opposed GM crops:

Allergies:  Dr. Romeo Quijano, of the Department of Pharmacology of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine, said GM food is hazardous commodities because they carried new proteins that may cause allergy.

The National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (BIOTECH) and its team have this answer: “Contrary to common perception, it is natural foods, not additives and artificial flavors, which account for majority of food allergies like nuts, shrimps, crabs and others.  In fact, any food that contains proteins has the potential to cause allergic reactions depending on individual susceptibility.

“Furthermore, extensive food safety evaluation has been implemented to minimize the possibility that allergenic proteins are introduced into commercialized genetically modified crops.  There is no single commercialized genetically modified plant that is known to cause any significant risks of allergenicity.”

Cancer: People eating GM food are likely to be susceptible to cancer.  This was discovered in a study conducted by Dr. Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Institute on genetically engineered potatoes on rats.  In his research, he fed rats on two strains of potatoes: one with genetically engineered with lectin from snowdrop bulbs and another with ordinary potatoes.

The result of his study: immune systems and brains, livers, kidneys and other vital organs of the rats fed with lectin-spiked potatoes were damaged while those fed with ordinary potatoes showed no damage at all.

“There is no evidence that the technologies used to produced-genetically modified foods are inherently harmful,” BIOTECH and other institutions concluded.  Referring on the study done by Dr. Pusztai, they said it was debunked by the Royal Society of London.  They found the Pusztai study as “flawed in experimental design, execution and analysis.”

Antibiotic resistance:   Quijano said a scientific data indicate that “the emergence of new diseases, the rapid evolution of virulence and the widespread occurrence of drug and antibiotic resistance are associated with the rise of genetic engineering.”

The BIOTECH team claims otherwise: “The possibility that antibiotic resistance genes built into genetically modified plants could be transferred to bacteria harmful to humans has been thoroughly studied.  To date, no reliable and stable transfer has been reported.  In fact, there are no known mechanisms for effective transfer of genes from plant to bacteria under natural conditions.

Besides, antibiotics are used only in the laboratory during development process of the biotech crops.  These, they claimed, do not produce antibiotics nor do they require application of antibiotics in the field.

Support

Now, let’s take a closer look at those organizations which fully support the transgenic crops for human consumption.

“Foods produced using genetic modification is as safe as foods produced using conventional breeding techniques,” assures the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “Genetically modified foods are as safe as other foods available on the market.”

The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) declared that different GM foods go through the global food safety process called Codex Alimentarius Risk Analysis of Foods Derived from Modern Biotechnology under which these foods are not found to be risky to human health.

“GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health,” said the UN health agency.  “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved. Continuous use of risk assessments based on the Codex principles and, where appropriate, including post market monitoring, should form the basis for evaluating the safety of GM foods.”

Last year, the premier American Medical Association issued this statement: “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years and during that time; no overt consequences to human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.”

The Royal Society of Medicine, an independent educational organization for doctors, dentists, scientists and others involved in medicine and health care in England, said: “Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world with no ill effects (or legal cases related to human health) despite many of the consumers coming from the most litigious of countries, the United States.”

Here’s the findings of the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology and in particular GMOs are no more risky than conventional plant-breeding technologies.”

Safer than street foods

Meanwhile, Officer-in-charge Vivencio R. Mamaril of the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) claims those foods that contain GMOs are safer to eat than those being sold in the streets.

The reason: transgenic crops undergo stricter tests and environmental assessments and could be much safer and more nutritious than street food consumed daily everywhere.  Unlike street food items that are not regulated, GM crops have been subjected to extensive testing under a bio safety framework regarded as one of the strictest in the world.

This made him wonder why those anti-GM campaigners have been blasting away at GM crops but keeping silent on the safety concerns for street food.  It may be because, he surmised, street food items are so common that no one bothers to ask if they are safe and nutritious for hundreds of thousands of pupils and students who consume them daily in spite of threats of microbial contamination.

“We may not all be so assiduous in guarding our rights in this situation, but what about on the food we eat? Are we always concerned with the safety of the food we consume? Is food quality in terms of safety our parameter in choosing what we eat? Do we read labels or are we more concerned with the price of the product we buy?  These are the many questions that most consumer behavior researchers undertake,” asked Dr. Mamaril, who is also the director of the Philippine Agriculture and Fisheries Biotechnology Program.

“Take for example, why are there so many street foods being sold in front of schools and many other busy places? Is the selling of street foods regulated to guard the safety of consumers? The answer maybe is no. And why is this so? It could be because the types of food sold are those known to be commonly consumed. Examples are animals’ innards that are processed as fried, smoked or are skewered, eggs wrapped in flour, fish balls, chicken balls, squid balls, taho, and many others.  The food quality concern in these kinds of foods could be microbial,” he said.

Now on the other side of the coin.  As for GM products, food safety is a real concern.  “Under our existing rules and regulations on GM crops, food safety is one the major concerns before such crops are given a biosafety permit. Other biosafety concerns are animal feeds and environmental safety,” Mamaril pointed out.

If you are given a choice, will you eat GM food or not?  One sage puts his answer this way: “A man who has enough food has several problems. A man without food has only one problem.” Or as Horace puts it: “Only a stomach that rarely feels hungry scorns common things.”

-Written by Henrylito D. Tacio in BusinessMirror.  See original article link here.

Image Credits: Henrylito D. Tacio

Radyo Teknolohiya: Interview with Dr. Maribel Zaporteza, a biotech R&D official (Philippines)

Radyo Teknolohiya: Interview with Dr. Maribel Zaporteza, a biotech R&D official (Philippines)

Dr. Maribel Zaporteza, the Deputy Program Director of the Philippine Genome Center shares her perspective on genetic engineering and GMOs during the interview of Ms. Melly Tenorio, Radio Program Anchor of Radyo ng Bayan aired in DZRB Radyo ng Bayan, 738 kHZ on 28 October 2016.

zaporteza

Genetically engineered microbes make their own fertilizer, could feed the world’s poorest

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—Industrial fertilizers help feed billions of people every year, but they remain beyond the reach of many of the world’s poorest farmers. Now, researchers have engineered microbes that, when added to soil, make fertilizer on demand, producing plants that grow 1.5 times larger than crops not exposed to the bugs or other synthetic fertilizers. The advance, reported here this week at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, could help farmers in the poorest parts of the world increase their crop yields and combat chronic malnutrition.

A key component of fertilizer is nitrogen, an element essential for building everything from DNA to proteins. Nitrogen is all around us, comprising 80% of the air we breathe. But that nitrogen is inert, bound up in molecules that plants and people can’t access. Some microbes have evolved proteins called nitrogenases that can split apart nitrogen molecules in the air and weld that nitrogen to hydrogen to make ammonia and other compounds that plants can absorb to get their nitrogen.

The industrial process for making fertilizer, invented more than a century ago by a pair of German chemists—Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch—carries out that same molecular knitting. But the Haber-Bosch process, as it’s now known, necessitates high pressures and temperatures to work. It also requires a source of molecular hydrogen (H2)—typically methane—which is the chief component of natural gas. Methane itself isn’t terribly expensive. But the need to build massive chemical plants to convert methane and nitrogen into ammonia, as well as the massive infrastructure needed to distribute it, prevents many poor countries from easy access to fertilizer.

A few years ago, researchers led by Harvard University chemist Daniel Nocera devised what they call an artificial leaf that uses a semiconductor combined with two different catalysts to capture sunlight and use that harvested energy to split water molecules (H2O) into H2 and oxygen (O2). At the time, Nocera’s group focused on using the captured hydrogen as a chemical fuel, which can either be burned directly or run through a device called a fuel cell to produce electricity. But last year, Nocera reported that his team had engineered bacteria called Ralstonia eutropha to feed on the H2 and carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and combine them to make hydrocarbon fuels. The next step, says Nocera, was to broaden the scope of their work by engineering another type of bacterium to take nitrogen out of the air to make fertilizer.

Nocera and his colleagues turned to a microbe called Xanthobacter autotrophicus, which naturally harbors a nitrogenase enzyme. But they still needed a way to provide the bugs with a source of H2 to make ammonia. So they genetically engineered Xanthobacter, giving them an enzyme called a hydrogenase, which allows them to feed on H2 to make a form of cellular energy called ATP. They then use that ATP, additional H2, and CO2 from the air to synthesize a type of bioplastic called polyhydroxybutyrate, or PHB, which they can store in their bodies.

This is where the microbes’ nitrogenase enzyme kicks in. The bacteria harvest H2 from their PHB store and use their nitrogenase to combine it with nitrogen from the air to make ammonia, the starting material for fertilizer. It doesn’t just work in the lab: Nocera reported yesterday at the meeting that when he and his colleagues put their engineered Xanthobacter in solution and used that solution to water radish crops, the vegetables grew 150% larger than controls not given either the bugs or other fertilizers.

Leif Hammarström, a chemist at Uppsala University in Sweden who also works on making fuels from solar energy, says he was impressed with the work. Making ammonia without using an industrial process “is a very challenging chemistry,” he says. “This is a good approach.” It may even be one that could help many of the world’s poor. Nocera says Harvard has licensed the intellectual property for the new technology to the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai, India, which is working to scale up the technology for commercial use around the globe.

-Written by Robert F. Service in Sciencemag.org.  See original article link here.

Research explains plant tissues’ sense of direction

Scientists at the John Innes Centre, Norwich have discovered how complex plant shapes are formed. The work, led by Dr. Alexandra Rebocho and colleagues in Professor Enrico Coen’s laboratory, could have wide implications on the understanding of shape formation, or ‘morphogenesis’, in nature. Understanding how genes influence plant shape formation would lead to better-adapted and higher yielding crop varieties.

One of the prevailing theories of how complex plant shapes develop, upon which this new research builds, is the theory of ’tissue conflict resolution’. In this theory, growth outcomes depend on tissues. In isolation, individual tissue regions grow equally in all directions or elongate in a preferred direction. In reality, tissue regions do not occur in isolation, but the adhesion and cohesion between adjoining regions cause tissues to buckle, curve, or bend to a compromise state.

The three proposed types of tissue conflict resolution are areal, surface, and directional. The new research provides evidence for the third category: directional conflict. Tissues, or collections of tissues, can have a set of directions, or ‘polarity field’, which is caused by the asymmetrical distribution of proteins within cells. An example of a response to this directionality is when plants grow faster parallel or perpendicular to the local polarity field.

For more information about this research, read the news release from the John Innes Centre.

-Published in ISAAA’s Crop Biotech Update.  See original article link here.