GMO: Proteins and Frankenfoods

May 17, 2013

The Fear and Wonder of a Chimera

In ancient times people were told about hybrid animals: the horse that was half human, with the torso and head of a man and the body of a horse, the man that had the head of a dog, the horse that had wings. Some have familiar names, like Pan, who had the hindquarters and horns of a goat but the face of a man.

For some these were an abomination, an unholy thing made from cross breeding and to be cursed. For some they provided a sense of wonder.

The Fear and Wonder of a Chimera

In ancient times people were told about hybrid animals: the horse that was half human, with the torso and head of a man and the body of a horse, the man that had the head of a dog, the horse that had wings. Some have familiar names, like Pan, who had the hindquarters and horns of a goat but the face of a man.

For some these were an abomination, an unholy thing made from cross breeding and to be cursed. For some they provided a sense of wonder.

Are genetically modified organisms (GMO) the prophesy – what we should fear – or are they the salvation of planet earth?

The fear of chimeras has been well placed in human mythology – but now, those chimeras are a reality. But with them, come the same prejudice. The same fears – they are evil – the same wonders – they may produce something great. That is the fear, the wonder of genetically modified organisms. We can produce a chimera from the DNA of different species, making crops and animals that are modified to produce something horrible for the planet or something wonderful.

The chimera is now upon us – taking the DNA from one organism, and placing it into another.


Since the ancient times the fear of chimeras has been a mix of wonder and horror. Now, with DNA technology, are we opening Pandor’s box? Or can we use the technology to save the world

What’s missing is science education, critical thinking, and the ability to talk the same language 

Perhaps it is my background in genetic engineering that makes the idea of genetic engineering interesting, and not scary. The knowledge that humans have manipulated genes in plants for at least 11,000 years gives some perspective. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) that are plants are neither the Frankenstein chimera that some suggest, nor are they the magic bullet for the common problems of feeding the world and saving the environment.

They are but one tool and sometimes that tool has failed. What bothered me greatly as I researched the issue, was that the people who were anti-GMO did not even speak the same language as those who were proponents of GMO. The logical fallacies in arguments were on both sides: appeal to antiquity, appeal to authority, and ad hominem being the most common. One fact was alarmingly clear: people will say anything, put up any photograph, repeat falsehoods because they think their concern about GMO are valid. This does not advance a rational discussion, this does not help advance the common quest we all would seek to find a safe way to feed the planet.  It also pointed out that critical thinking is not taught, and science education is lacking. There are rational concerns about some GMO, but those discussions become lost when histrionics replaces a sense of history, when the discussion is not about science but about fear. On the other side, the proponents of GMO, are often dismissive – partly because they cannot speak to irrational thought, and partly because they become forced into a position to support science.

Thirty Years of Molecular Engineering Plants

In 1983 a gene, made from DNA not belonging to the plant, was transferred into a plant and this technical feat and outcome was reported in the journal Nature.  But genetic modification of plants by humans has been going on for thousands of years. While at times we will specifically use “molecular engineering” for the modern technology of modifying existing DNA or inserting new DNA into plants, for most we will use genetically modified (GM) crops to mean those crops which have specifically had their DNA modified by molecular technology. Molecular engineering of plants started 30 years ago, and 35 years since we first showed how the DNA coding for a protein from one species (a chicken) could be put it into the DNA of a virus (Herpes).  That use of a virus to host a DNA led to the idea that a plant virus could be used to insert DNA into a plant. DNA codes for all the proteins of the plant, much like humans. The techniques used then are now considered as outdated as using a floppy disc – and in fact, the ability to molecular engineer DNA can be done in a garage.

When we made our chimera (Herpes -Chicken) the concerns about molecular engineering were not yet articulated.  At that time it was a breakthrough to prove we could move a gene from one bit of DNA to another, and have that new organism make the chicken protein. Prior to that it was theoretically possible, but never proven. Once proven, did we open Pandora’s box or did we find the stairs to heaven?

Would you inject it?

We worry about our foods, a lot. So imagine injecting something like this directly into your body: extracted from a genetically modified organism  –

genetically modified organismswith metacresol (from coal tar), phenol, and other agents?  Did you know that people inject this everyday? Did you know that people not only inject this everyday but it keeps them alive? It is called insulin. GM regulation So when worried about the food supply, do not forget that GMO also applies to bacteria and yeast that produce proteins that some need daily to keep alive and healthy.

Would you ingest it, and should we label it?

Why not? The insulin above is clearly labeled, it says what it is – where it is from, and what else is in it. The question is how do you label corn? Because corn is a new plant, it wasn’t even around a few thousand years ago. Although most who wish food to be labeled intend those foods that contain proteins from another species. The insulin which the vast majority of Americans take, come from DNA from humans, but are grown in yeast or bacteria.

The anti-label side states that most scientists and the FDA find the food is safe, so why add an additional label to the ingredient. The counter argument: should not people decide for themselves if they wish to have it?  In a way this is an esoteric argument: I have a hard time getting my patients to read food labels, and most Americans do not read labels.

Most of the corn and soy grown in the US are genetically modified. There has been no immediate ill effect, and yet, some would argue that trans-fats, once considered to be good fat, were not discovered to have an ill effect until years later.

The anti-label says that some people would shun those foods, wanting non GMO foods. The pro-label says, yes, that is the idea.

I would suggest that if we label food, we should also require labels of supplements and vitamins, but I digress.

Proteins and plants

DNA is the programing code for proteins that are made by an organism. Even more than just a code for the proteins, it is the program for how the proteins are produced, when they are produced, and how much is produced. The code can  keep a given protein from being made under certain circumstances.  If you take the DNA that codes for a protein  and put it into corn you will have corn that produces that protein (sometimes).  Not all proteins that are in one species can be produced by another species even if we put the proper DNA sequence in the host.

For GM crops, most of the proteins that are manipulated with DNA are either the plants own proteins, or proteins from species that interact with that plant.  Bt cotton, for example, is a cotton plant who has had bacterial DNA  that codes for a protein that discourages bollworms and thus decreases the need for pesticides. This Bt DNA has also been placed in corn, and it was estimated to save 3.2 billion dollars  to farmers in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota over the past 14 years as well as a savings to non-Bt corn growers of more than 2.4 billion over 14 years – in pesticide costs.  The farmers were able to have higher yields of the corn, reducing loss from insect damage, reducing pesticides (mycotoxins), and providing a simpler and less expensive and environmentally friendly pest management option.

Lovers of organic farming will tell you that soil is a viable, living thing- with many different animals contributing to the balance that allows plants to grow. The most common are organisms called nematodes. A study out of China showed that planting the GM cotton did not affect soil nematodes.

On the horizon are crops that produce pheromones that pests interpret as “danger” signals, meaning less pesticides or even the promise of no pesticides would be needed.

Genetic Engineering: Farmers are more concerned with the environment than most know

City folk seem to think they are the only ones who know about industrial and organic farming. Many city folk assume, sometimes correctly, that modern farming has sterilized the land upon which we grow crops and make the assumption that GMO is another step in the destruction of our planet. Yet, if they were to go to farm conferences the most well-attended presentations are about environmental issues.

No one is closer to the land than a farmer, no one cares more about their land than a farmer – including those who own the large agri-business.  It is not the goal of agri-business to destroy the land they get their crops from. The goal of farming production, is to use less fertilizer, less herbicides, less pesticides, and less water. The hard way to do genetic engineering is what the Mayans did.  But over a few thousand years they took one plant, and made it into another species – one that wasn’t recognized until 10,000 years later.

The promise of molecular engineering for plants 

The promise of molecular engineering is based upon what genetic engineering already showed: the ability to make crops that (a) grow faster (b) resistent to pests (c) resistant to weeds. We would add that the new goal of molecular engineered plants would be environmentally friendly, at the least, and helpful to the environment at the most. The ability of plants to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen may be one of the major ways to diminish green-house gases.

In GMO farms there are less pesticides and less herbicides used. That doesn’t mean it will always be this way. What GMO has done is improve the yields of crops, it has decreased the use of some toxic chemicals on the land, it has provided a mechanism to improve nutrition, and decreased the use of water. But that can change.

In an effort to find the truth about GMO and avoid the hyperbole on both sides, I did discover some rather disturbing myths out there. One is a photograph that shows a picture of two corn cobs, one eaten, the other not. One labeled GMO corn, the other not – but it is a doctored photograph.  To think a squirrel would have more taste or better taste than a human is not only biologically incorrect, it is laughable.

In a rational discussion about the pros and cons of GMO we need a basis of discussion and not myths.

Here are some things that are on the internet that are myths

The tomato fish: They have a tomato which has a gene inserted in it from arctic fish so that the tomato will survive cold weather. This is not true. The cartoon of a chimera fish/tomato was a rallying point for some anti-GMO sentiment, but it turns out that such a product is not to be found on any market shelf. I understand one of the main issues was vegetarians who were concerned that having a protein from an animal in a plant would violate their vegetarianism (ok, that one made me scratch my head also). It was an interesting idea, and no one has any idea how far these experiments went, but biology would tell you that a frost-resistant fish probably isn’t going to be helping a tomato. When the company who was working on the project was approached they noted that the experiment was a dismal failure. Then again, think about it: a fish has a heart and blood vessels and is pumping things – a tomato, well, doesn’t and isn’t. Still the idea of transferring proteins from one species to another, much as we did 35 years ago, raises concerns. The problem is that there is too much hyperbole in the debate and the discussion.

German cows die after eating GM corn: It is true that Syngenta (the supplier of GM corn) reimbursed the farmers for the loss of cows, and that the cows did eat the corn that had been genetically modified.  The investigation of the cow deaths concluded that the GM corn was not the cause of death. In addition, there were extensive feeding studies of that GM corn (Bt 176) which were published in peer review journals and there was no adverse effect. Further, that corn had been planted for a number of years without adverse effect in those fields.  Turns out the cows probably died of botulism.

Did rats get tumors when eating GMO corn?: Rats developed tumors when eating GMO corn – not really. This was a paper that was published- and it had a lot of flaws: (a) These types of rats all develop tumors when they get old (b) severe statistical issues, with a small control group (c) No basic statistical significance (d) No dose response curve. The rats were fed unlimited amount of corn – if you feed this type of rat unlimited food they develop cancer.  Bad study, highly repeated in the internet – not repeated by anyone. Here is a response printed in full to that article: Seralini et al. (2012) claim to have found evidence for the long term toxicity of roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize (GMM). Using one-tailed Fishers exact test we show that there is no statistically significant increase in mortality rates or the number of tumors in rats fed GMM compared to control groups in the original data. Seralini et al. state that “In females, all treated groups died 2–3 times more than controls”. As follows from the figures presented: 2 female rats out of 10 died before the mean survival time in the control group, compared to 29 out of 60 in the six GMM fed groups. This difference is not statistically significant (P = 0.09). Note that this P-value requires a further correction for multiple comparisons due to two groups of rats (of different sexes) being independently analyzed. Among males 3 rats out of 10 died prematurely in the control group, compared to 19 out of 60 rats in the six GMM fed groups. This difference is statistically not significant (P = 0.615). Ironically if we forget about the importance of statistical significance and present the data in a manner used by Seralini et al., we could say that “In males, groups with 22% and 33% GMM in their diet died 3 times less than controls”, however this was not reported. This difference is also statistically not significant (P = 0.291 for each comparison). Seralini et al. state that “In treated males, liver congestions and necrosis were 2.5–5.5 times higher” and that “Females developed large mammary tumors almost always more often than and before controls”. Two male rats out of 10 had liver pathologies in the control group, compared to 30 out of 60 GMM fed male rats. Five female rats out of 10 developed mammary tumors in the control group, compared to 44 out of 60 GMM fed female rats. These differences are not statistically significant (P = 0.076 and P = 0.133). Note that this analysis should be done with care: over 30 different organs were analyzed in this study, but data on only a few was presented, giving rise to the statistical problem of multiple comparisons that was not addressed in the article. However, even despite this problem, all reported differences between the number of rats with specific organ pathologies in control and GMM fed rats are not statistically significant. It is also worth noting that tumors are frequent in Sprague–Dawley Rats: a spontaneous tumor incidence of 45% was previously recorded during a 1.5 year period (Prejean et al., 1973). The images of GMM fed rats with large tumors presented by Seralini et al. are misleading as they imply that such tumors do not normally occur or occur less frequently in untreated rats. Such tumors may occur in rats that are not fed GMM and Seralini et al. provide no statistical evidence that the incidence of tumors in general or any specific kind of tumor is increased in GMM fed rats. The random nature of the observed differences between control and GMM fed rats in the study is consistent with the lack of dose-dependent relationships between the amount of GMM in the diet and the supposed toxic effects of GMM. A news article published in Nature stated that “The controversy over the findings is likely to be settled only after detailed analysis of the paper and its data, and replication of the experiments” (Butler, 2012). Analysis of the data suggests that no statistically significant findings of GMM toxicity were presented in the first place.

Did sheep die from eating cotton with Bt? In a word, no. In almost every anti-GMO site I visited this was repeated over and over again, in spite of the simple evidence against it. This involved a group of sheep who died after grazing on a field of cotton. The accusation was that the sheep died from some unexplained poison – and that part is true. Sheep have been dying from toxins in cotton fields long before Bt cotton, and with the same lesions described by the anti-GMO groups.  In all cases the veterinarians describe that the sheep died of a toxin, probably pesticides used. Veterinarians  could not rule out nitrate or gossypol (a natural toxic ingredient of cotton plants) as toxic agents.  When Bt was fed to laboratory animals there were no deaths. Less pesticides are used on Bt Cotton modified plants, the total use of pesticides in the 10 million farmers who use Bt cotton has gone down.


I am not, nor ever have received funding support from Monsanto, or any corporation making or considering GMO. The funding received for the original research done with molecular engineering came from a grant from the National  Institutes of Health, and not associated with any industry.  Nor have I been paid any stipend, nor received any accommodation from such industries. Nor am I seeking such.


(1) Areawide Suppression of European Corn Borer with Bt Maize Reaps Savings to Non-Bt Maize Growers W. D. Hutchison, E. C. Burkness, P. D. Mitchell, R. D. Moon, T. W. Leslie, S. J. Fleischer, M. Abrahamson, K. L. Hamilton, K. L. Steffey, M. E. Gray, R. L. Hellmich, L. V. Kaster, T. E. Hunt, R. J. Wright, K. Pecinovsky, T. L. Rabaey, B. R. Flood, E. S. Raun Science 8 October 2010: vol. 330 no. 6001 pp. 222-225 PMID: 20929774

(2) A 2-year field study shows little evidence that the long-term planting of transgenic insect-resistant cotton affects the community structure of soil nematodes. Li X, Liu B. PLoS One. 2013 Apr 16;8(4):e61670. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0061670. Print 2013. PMID: 23613899

(3)Beever D and Kemp C (2000). Safety issues associated with the DNA in animal feed derived from genetically modified crops. A review of scientific and regulatory procedures. Nutritional Abstract Reviews Series B: Livestock Feeds and Feeding 70:175–182.

(4)Flachowsky G, Chesson A, and Aulrich K (2005). Animal nutritional with feeds from genetically modified plants. Archives of Animal Nutrition 59, 1–40.

(5)Flachowsky G, Aulrich K, Bohme H, and Halle I (2007). Studies on feeds from genetically modified plants (GMP) – Contributions to nutritional and safety assessment. Animal Feed Science and Technology. 133: 2-30.

(6)Goldstein DA, Tinland B, Gilbertson LA, Staub JM, Bannon GA, Goodman, RE, McCoy, RL, Silvanovich A (2005). Human safety and genetically modified plants: a review of antibiotic resistance markers and future transformation selection technologies. Journal of Applied Microbiology 99:7–23.

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