Monday, May 30, 2011

Palate Cleanser #152

The Atlanta Botanical Extravaganza...

Hellebore (Lenten Rose), Atlanta Botantical Garden

Lotus, Atlanta Botantical Garden

Lotus leaves, Atlanta Botantical Garden

Magnolia, Atlanta Botanical Garden

Got me... Atlanta Botanical Garden

The "You've Got Me" plant has been identified by my Kiwi friend A. as Borage officinalis, which totally makes sense, since it was in the Edible Plants exhibit but unlabeled. Yet another bee-attracting beauty that I can't grow in Miami. *sobs*

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Friday, May 27, 2011

Genetically Modified Organisms: Is it Nice to Fool Mother Nature? Part 2

Researcher holding up a GMO vegetable in the laboratory
© Monika Wisniewska via

Genetically Modified Organisms: Is it Nice to Fool Mother Nature?

by Thelma Lee Gross, DVM

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. You can read Part 1 here.

Some Problems with GMOs

It is not surprising that genetic modification is not without its costs.  Most of these relate to potentially negative environmental impact.  Nothing is free, and certainly not GMOs.  This section will deal with some of the issues that have arisen and may arise as a result of genetically modified food crops.

Antibiotic Resistance Genes  Amflora potatoes, one of the older GMOs, is used in industry (See Part 1).  It contains an antibiotic resistance gene that is used as a marker for genetic modification.  Antibiotics are applied to select the successfully modified product which co-expresses resistance to the antibiotic used.  If the product is modified correctly, it survives because it also resists the antibiotic.  However, this resistance gene could theoretically be transferred to bacteria by direct exposure of the modified potato to the environment in which bacteria abound. 

As concerns over antibiotic resistance are increasing rapidly in the modern medical world, this technique of selection should be discontinued and, in fact, is considered antiquated by current standards of GMO production.  Newer GMOs are confirmed via the use of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing or bioassays.  Nevertheless, this potato was approved for planting in Europe in 2009.

Agricultural Test Area © Andres Reh vis

Herbicide Ready Issues   In theory, if a crop is resistant to an herbicide, then that herbicide (usually glyphosate, Roundup) can be used with impunity, and weed control is achieved without tilling (See Part 1).  However, recent evidence by Michael Owen, a weed scientist at Iowa State University, indicates that “weed communities” are shifting as a result of the practice of planting glyphosate-resistant crops and then focusing on the use of one herbicide.  The genetic trait itself seems to be having no direct effect on the weed communities via crossbreeding; rather, it is the overall method of weed control that is creating local pressure to shift the weed communities to those that include glyphosate- resistant species, creating new problems for the farmer. The conclusion by Owen and Green is that diversified weed management systems, as well as new herbicides, will need to be developed. This seems to negate the benefits of herbicide resistant GMOs, and it may ultimately increase the need for a variety of potentially more toxic products.

Although scientists are indicating that these weed shifts can lower crop yields, in House oversight meetings in October 2010, Ann Wright, a deputy undersecretary of the Agriculture Department, said the department “lacked authority” to restrict herbicide-tolerant crops, much to the dismay of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who is working on the superweed issue.  He stated the Department could stop herbicide-ready crops under its noxious weed law, of which Wright was apparently ignorant.  According to Wright, the USDA can only regulate herbicide-tolerant crops as pests themselves but cannot stop farmers from using the crops, even if they lead to the development of resistant weeds. The Environmental Protection Agency said it had raised the weed-resistance issue with the USDA and was in “conversation” with them.  At that hearing, Owen, who has also worked on a National Research Council, said he believed it is too late anyway because farmers have come to rely on the use of one herbicide (glyphosate) alone.  Currently 93% of the soybeans and 70% of the corn planted in the USA in 2010 were herbicide tolerant varieties. 

In October 2010, current Roundup Ready plants (stecklings) from sugar beet rootstock were ordered to be removed from the ground by Judge Jeffrey White in San Francisco, due to a lawsuit involving the Sierra Club, Organic Seed Alliance, and other plaintiffs.  This suit followed USDA-issued permits to plant the stecklings, even though White had revoked the federal deregulation of seeds and crops containing the Roundup Ready trait in August, pending a new environmental study. However, this week the USDA decided to allow the current crop to be harvested, even though the environmental study will not be released until 2012.

It is clear that glyphosate-resistant crop plants may function as weed pests.  Herbicide-ready rapeseed (canola) often is alternated with other crops and can show up as a weed in the alternate crop’s plantings the following year.  This may force the use of more persistent and different herbicides and is certainly not the intended effect of this GMO.  

These problems are significant and quite possibly outweigh the benefits.  If this type of GMO ultimately creates an increase in pesticide use and begins to function as a weed itself, then it should be removed from the market and other alternatives sought. 

GMO Cotton (South Africa) © Brasil2 via

Bt Issues   There is some evidence that the prolonged use of Bt crops can create emergence of resistant insect strains or elevation in populations of insects that are naturally resistant; these would likely have emerged with the use of Bt alone.  There is recent field evidence that certain strains of mirid bugs have acquired pest status in areas of China where Bt cotton is grown.

In essence, any responsible program of genetic modification that involves pests like weeds and insects should be considering the emergence of resistance.  Bt crops remain useful because of the significant reduction in production costs and relative safety of this type of pesticide.  Characterizing the mutations that enable resistance could lead to the development of molecular tools to monitor resistance in the field, as well as new genetically modified crops that stay ahead of pest resistance without the use of toxic external products.  This might be achieved by further studies like those described in Part 1, where naturally occurring pest-resistance genes are transferred from one plant to another in a “share the wealth” approach to pest control.

Genetic Drift   The increasing use of GMOs often means that the variety of planted strains is diminished as farmers adopt more lucrative crops.  In places where there are heritage strains of importance to native farmers and consumers, cross pollination from modified crops becomes a real worry.  In Mexico, for example, concern for the genetic pollution of native varieties has spurred protests, despite evidence that using genetically modified corn ultimately may provide independence from imported U.S. corn by substantially increasing domestic yield.  Native varieties in some areas already contain genes from genetically altered corn.  The fear is that indigenous species that display adaptive traits for certain challenged regions may lose those advantages by exposure over time to genetically modified corn.  This has not yet been found.  Hybrid corn already exists in Mexico and has been regularly mixed with native corn varieties.  Genetically modified canola (rapeseed) has been growing in the wild, and has apparently crossbred with native strains, according to a survey in August of 2010 by the Ecological Society of America. 

These results indicate that genetically modified organisms, like all organisms, cannot be contained and will interbreed to a varying extent.  The effect of the proposed trait on the environment should be studied prior to release and traits such as herbicide resistance should be avoided.  For the sake of genetic banking alone, not to mention the cultural importance of crop and other plants, heritage varieties should be carefully protected by strict segregation from GMOs.  This is also important for organic farmers who cannot market their food if “contamination” by GMOs is identified.

Bt genetic material has been identified in tissues of wild mussels.  Mussels likely receive the genes during feeding when they ingest Bt contaminated microorganisms.  The long term effect of such exposure to these lower organisms of the food chain is not yet known; Bt is not known to be toxic to any organisms other than insect larvae.  But it is conceivable that other effects of environmental spread of GMOs may emerge as further studies are made.

Genetic Engineering (Plant) © espion via

The Influence of Industry

GMOs are often promoted as the one-stop solution in the management of the world’s food problems and instead should involve an integrated and holistic approach.  Such strong emphasis on this silver bullet of biotechnology is promulgated by industry, which has a strong vested interest in GMOs. 

The Monsanto Company is the world’s largest producer of genetically engineered seed, including Roundup Ready products, and controls over 90% of the world’s genetically engineered seed production.  Monsanto came under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department in 2009 as a result of its business strategies and licensing agreements.  For example, Monsanto does not permit independent companies to breed plants that contain both Monsanto's genes and the genes of any of its competitors, called “stacking,” unless Monsanto gives prior written permission.

In some cases, this company is clearly influencing or controlling which scientific studies of GMOs are done and published. Some researchers working with GMOs have apparently had to pry the data for testing out of Monsanto via Freedom of Information filings and lawsuits.  Although their secrecy may have something to do with proprietary issues, this resembles a cover-up to the public. Monsanto does not claim responsibility for the genetic drift from its GMOs, and in the case of GM canola spreading to the wild, disingenuously tried to make it an issue of patent rights.

The final section of this series will attempt to balance the pros and cons of GMOs from an ethical perspective, with a view to the future of our world.

Genetic Modification in Balance  

The core of our distrust of genetic modification is that we do not like the idea of humans manipulating a genome of anything, not even a bacterium.  It conjures up a fear of mad scientists creating monsters fused from fish and elephants or birds and snakes.  One internet poster, for example, shows a fruit viciously biting its consumer and was featured on a previous post of this blogsite.  There is a fear of the “slippery slope” and that ultimately we will manipulate our own genome for eugenics, and not just to avert or reverse genetic disease (See Part 1).  We are already engineering farmed salmon to grow more quickly, although the FDA has not yet given its approval.  And recently scientists in Canada engineered a pig to produce phytase, an enzyme that helps in the digestion of cereal grains.  This obviates addition of phosphorous to their diet.  This reduces production costs and allegedly reduces phosphorous contamination of the environment.  Pigs are mammals.  Are we far behind?

The Case for Human Disease   Human gene therapy is a natural outcome of genetic manipulation and in essence creates GMOs of us humans, but in a “good way.”  Diseases that lend themselves well to gene therapy include sickle-cell anemia, Tay-Sachs disease, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, Huntington's chorea, and cystic fibrosis, as these occur from mistakes involving single nitrogen bases of a DNA molecule.  If a correct copy of a given gene can be successfully inserted and then assume its normal function, these genetic disorders may be cured.  Research has begun in combined immunodeficiency disorder and alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency of humans, among other diseases.

If we do not like the idea of genetic engineering, aren’t we willing to relax our disapproval when it means saving lives?  You bet we are.  Although we can all imagine an end point, the horrific one involving designer offspring and new creatures created from genetic parts of others, can we not be selective in the use of genetic modification?  Can we not pull back when problems emerge and forge ahead when real benefits are gained?  I think we can.

A Balanced Approach   The most laudatory stated goal of genetic modification of our food is that of fighting starvation and malnutrition.  But genetic modification should not be touted as the end-all and be-all of agriculture’s successful future.  As we have seen, GMOs can grow in areas of environmental deprivation, such as in high saline soils and in areas of low water availability.  They can increase the availability of nutrients.  However, it is possible to conventionally breed many of these traits into foods, as organizations like HarvestPlus are doing. Iron, zinc and vitamin A are the principle targets of this organization’s efforts at biofortification.  HarvestPlus is producing sweet potatoes with beta carotene and is working on a similar corn crop.  Cassava with beta carotene; iron-rich beans; and iron and zinc enriched millet, rice, and wheat are being produced for Asia.  In Peru potatoes are being developed at the International Potato Center in Lima to contain more iron and zinc, also without genetic modification.

Burmese Rice Planting © David Kerkhoff via

Green Super Rice is actually a number of new rice varieties that are being conventionally bred to maintain high crop yield with less fertilizer and in unfavorable environmental conditions.  A Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded rice research project, these rice crops are being targeted to poor rice farmers in fifteen countries of Africa and Asia.  These strains can be tailored to the individual needs of a region, such as drought or flooding.  The ability to produce these varieties is dependent on molecular genetics and a detailed knowledge of the genes under study.  A key technique involves subjecting biotic and abiotic stresses to offspring, thereby eliminating weak lines in a system of accelerated natural selection.

In a further example, a salt-tolerant wheat that yields 25 per cent more on saline soils than its parent variety was created by placing salt tolerant genes from Triticum monoccum, a wheat species that grows on poor, arid soils in the Middle East, into durum wheat.  This was accomplished using non-GM breeding.  Successful offspring were identified using the latest molecular marking technology.

“Site-directed mutagenesis,” is a technique that is currently lead by Cibus, a company in San Diego.  This uses the plant’s own genetic machinery to change its DNA.  Regulatory approval is more straightforward because outside genes are not being introduced.  Cibus has reached agreements with a variety of companies and organizations to use its technique on their crops, including the Flax Council of Canada.  Although this is still genetic modification, it may be tolerable to a public that fears “Frankenfoods” because altered genes are sourced from the plants’ own genetic armamentarium.

Genetic technology remains vital even in the conventional production of new crops. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2009, researchers stated:  “……the best biofortification strategies will likely involve genetic engineering in conjunction with conventional breeding, particularly when the direct enhancement of local elite breeding varieties is required.”

The use of a GM versus a conventional crop must be considered on a case by case basis.  If financial gains are to be made by the farmer, the GM crop will be selected, and not always to the benefit of the future of farming.  This is human nature.  Scientific research must be independent of big business and must indicate when GMOs have gone wrong, no matter their temporary financial advantage.  Then they must be removed from the marketplace.
Genetically modified crops should not be used to the exclusion of conventional crops, particularly if their use is being driven by financial gain on the part of big business.  If conventional methods provide seeds that breed true from generation to generation and have viable traits that ensure a healthy and productive crop at a cheaper price, then they are superior and should be promoted.  In addition to biotechnology, viable, informed agro-ecological practices are critical.  GMOs alone do not guarantee a successful crop. 

The Problem of Feeding the World   Perhaps the most highly touted positive outcome of GMO crops is in the fight against world hunger and malnutrition.  We have already seen in Part 2 of this series how genetic modification is being geared towards nutritional augmentation of crops as well as towards improved yield in areas of highly challenged soils and climate.  While conventional breeding programs are making significant contributions as well, the role of genetic modification should not be overlooked.

In Europe there is a pervasive resistance to genetically modified food.  Because of the European influence throughout Africa and lack of education there on the role and benefits of GMOs, Africa has been very slow to implement planting of genetically modified crops.  Activism against GMOs has played a significant role.  Since regulatory laws are strict in Europe, this has influenced progress in Africa with which it has strong ties.  It would seem that this can only prolong the problems of starvation and malnutrition in the region.  Recently, Roger Beachy, head of the National Institutes of Food and Agriculture of the USDA, spoke out pointedly on this subject.  Europe cannot keep influencing third world countries in this way because the cost is lives. A unified effort that seeks a role for GMOs, particularly in areas of the world that rely on a single crop for food, is critical.  World support for integrating these products with modern agricultural technology must occur, however, as small farmers often do not have access to modern seeds and other technological advantages, even if they should want them.  Since 1980, U.S. assistance for agricultural development in Africa has fallen by 75%.

Greenpeace has been persistent and ferocious in its protest against GMOs.  It apparently funded the study of Spiroux et al. that claims toxicity of Bt and Roundup Ready corn fed to rats; this paper was based largely on statistical analysis of previous studies by Monsanto.  The results of the paper have been grossly exaggerated across the internet as “organ failure” in rats.  The small biochemical changes observed did not correlate with organic disease.  Food Standards Australia New Zealand, among several organizations, has refuted the conclusions.

Greenpeace creates a picture of GMOs interbreeding wildly throughout nature, and thus creating an “unforeseeable and uncontrollable” future. 

In reality genetically modified organisms have been part of the food chain for 15 years and have yet to create any scientifically proven illness.  True, there is no absolute proof that GMOs might not cause some health effects somewhere eventually, but it is easy to scare the public with such hints of the bogeyman to come.  How is this fair to areas of the world that can seriously benefit from GMOs?

Greenpeace is right to state that biological diversity is important as part of our “global heritage.”  Monocultures are more susceptible to disease, as has occurred with commercial bananas and oranges.  (See earlier part)  Diverse varieties of heritage plants serve as a source of important material for naturally and genetically modified crops that will resist diseases as they emerge and facilitate production of novel, improved food crops to nourish the world.  But diverse plantings, often important in small family farms, cannot be adapted to large scale production, and it is large scale production that is needed if our exploding world population is to thrive.  We cannot expect our poor world neighbors to survive on boutique produce, grown organically on small farms.  That is food elitism.

Further, regulatory delays, like those faced by golden rice, are unreasonable.  It is unconscionable to hold a nutritionally-modified organism to the same cookie cutter of fierce regulatory requirements that might reasonably face a GMO that is herbicide or pest resistant.  It is time for a two-tiered system with fast tracking for simple nutrionally altered GMOs that improve protein, vitamin, and trace mineral content of food, while providing a more rigorous approval process for GMOs involving pesticides, herbicides, and resistance to infectious diseases.

The rich can afford to be cautious, even if caution were due.  But the poor cannot continue to face starvation and malnutrition with its attendant diseases when part of the answer lies at hand.  From Jimmy Carter:  “Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is.  Without adequate food supplies at affordable prices, we cannot expect world health or peace.”

No one likes to give an inch on any highly polarized issue: look at the NRA, which does not support a ban on automatic weapons and vehemently holds on to the right to purchase a gun without a background check.  As long as we see GMOs in terms of black and white, we cannot make progress to fight malnutrition and starvation, to provide a cheaper source of medicines and vaccines, to address genetic diseases, and to fight problems of pollution and energy shortage.  Let us approach this vitally important field of technology with insight, thoughtfulness, and an open mind.

So it's Marzie here, with still more homework...

If you lived in Africa or Latin America and could eat potatoes or some other tuber that would prevent your susceptibility to malaria or dengue, so that you could be healthy enough to work and feed (and also protect) your children, so that you could avoid the costs, even if you could somehow afford them, of medical care for one of those mosquito borne diseases-

Would you?

Syringe stuck in a potato ©David Crockett via

You bet you would.

I'll be back with more about GMOs next week. So many of you had no idea of the good side of GMOs, or where the ideas that GMOs are bad came from. I'll be hoping to add to the broad perspective that Thelma Lee has built. As always, thanks for reading...

Article text content © Thelma Lee Gross, DVM

Blog end comments © Bright Nepenthe, 2011

All other images were purchased from iStockphoto and/or are fair use via Wikipedia as noted.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Genetically Modified Organisms: Is it Nice to Fool Mother Nature? Part 1

DNA Model and Vegetables in Refrigerator © Günay Mutlu via

Back in the days when I had grand plans for this blog, before a slew of family issues, health problems (and all the attendant depression that goes with all your grand plans getting totally messed up and not wanting to get bogged down with any negativity in my writing), I promised my readers a series on GMOs. After my poor friend Thelma Lee spent many hours working on an article that would give readers a scientific understanding of GMOs, I just tanked with the blogging for a time. Sourcing photos and deciding what I might be able to say or not say (legally) in any follow-up posts (after receiving some cautionary advice from a reader and a friend) made it all seem daunting. But, given the ever evolving world around us, the topic seems more relevant than ever. In the wake of violent storms, floods, droughts, earthquakes, volcanic ash thick enough to scramble international flight patterns and therefore affect sunlight in some agricultural areas, the issue of genetically modified agricultural products is timely.

Actually, though you might think most about GMO foods, GMOs impact three areas of our world currently- agricultural (yes,  food products, but what about textiles fibers, and other applications?), medicinal (think vaccines or drug delivery or vitamin augmentation) and industrial (think waste remediation, for example). But what do you think when you hear about GMOs? Many people think:

But what is it that you're actually saying no to? And... should you be?

Most people have no idea what the deal is with GMOs. I feel strongly about such subjects because as a PhD chemist, I'm weary of hearing that 'chemicals are bad'. Your body is made up of a delicate balance of chemicals. 'Chemicals' are not bad. And let me tell you, not all organic stuff is good, either. Wanna talk about some natural or organic stuff that's bad? I could go on for days, listing things like arsenic (naturally occurring), radon (naturally occurring), ricin (naturally occurring), saxitoxin (naturally occurring) or how about a humble little protein called avidin, found in egg white and which binds the vitamin biotin with one of the highest affinities known, to name but a few. Avidin is actually one of the reasons that you shouldn't eat raw egg whites. (Biotin is kind of useful in the human body, ya know?) But avidin, which on the face of it might seem bad, has actually been an incredibly useful tool in biological and medical research science.

The goal of Thelma Lee's article (split into two parts, so you can better absorb the information) is to explain the current science behind GMOs and some of the lofty goals that GMO producers have explored, many of which have been, or are on the verge of being, achieved. And you should ask yourself, as you read, if GMOs really sound all that bad, once you understand them better? And if you're still unconvinced, ask yourself: Is every GMO bad? Is the science bad? Is the business angle or potential for monopolies of a GMO product bad? Does the potential for good far outweigh the potential bad? The facts may challenge your thinking and, at a minimum, will have you considering:

Genetically Modified Organisms: Is it Nice to Fool Mother Nature?

by Thelma Lee Gross, DVM

Introduction and Background

Since the 1953 discovery of the chemical structure of DNA by Watson and Crick, humans have wanted to manipulate it.  A unique double helix of chains of sugars and phosphates attached to nitrogen bases (adenine: A; cytosine: C; guanine: G; and thymine: T), DNA both codes for the production of proteins and controls which ones are turned on or off; i.e., made or suppressed.  In this way, the characteristics of an organism are genetically determined for traits such as disease resistance or products such as hormones.  Modifying DNA meant that humans might change the outcome of a cellular characteristic or product in a more specific and controlled fashion than by the conventional routes of selective breeding and, later, mutagenesis, which is the relatively nonspecific alteration of genetic material using chemicals or radiation.

Using enzymatic scissors (endonucleases, exonucleases) and glue (ligases), scientists soon learned how to manipulate DNA and its subcomponents, genes.  In 1973, Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer invented the technique of DNA cloning, which created copies of the segment of DNA under study.  By increasing the amount of DNA available for manipulation, this technique allowed genes to be transplanted between different biological species and signaled the birth of genetic engineering.

In order to produce a genetically modified organism, or GMO, the gene or genes must be chosen, replicated and isolated, and then transferred to the host genome.  Plasmids, circular pieces of DNA usually found in viruses or bacteria, are common vectors or vessels of transfer, particularly for plants.  Simply put, the spliced gene is incorporated into the plasmid by cutting its circular structure, inserting the new genetic material, and closing the circle.  The plasmid is then inserted into the host via plasmid-infected bacteria.  Genes can also be “shot” via microinjection into host cells in cases where plasmids cannot function well in this capacity, particularly in the case of animal cells.  The organism is then regenerated from the transformed cells.  Antibiotic exposure to eliminate non-transformed organisms that do not co-express an antibiotic resistance gene, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), or bioassay testing is required to insure that the chosen gene is expressed in the regenerated organism and will function as expected.

Next I will outline the current use of genetically modified plants and their benefits to agriculture, medicine, and industry. 

The Use of Genetically Modified Organisms in Agriculture   

Genetic modification of food crops has been directed to several key goals.  Crops have been altered to resist pests and herbicides; to improve nutrition; to survive in climactically or soil-challenged locations; and to provide increased yield, improved taste, and longer shelf survival. 

Pesticide Resistance  The principal types of genetically modified crops that resist pests are those containing the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) gene, which produces a bacterial-derived larvicidal toxin.  Bacillus thuringiensis toxin displays no significant effects on the environment, or mammals and birds, but is toxic for certain species of caterpillar larvae. 

Crops that are modified to be pest-resistant can be beneficial in several ways.  The use of Bt crops reduces the use and therefore the cost of chemical pesticides.  Bt cotton has been highly effective in reducing the need for Bt pesticide in commercial production.

Secondly, GMOs containing pesticide have been found to protect conventional crops in the vicinity, as in recent studies of Bt corn planted alongside conventional corn.  Conventional corn was protected from borers simply by co-planting with Bt corn.  This increased yield and reduced overall cost since conventional corn is less expensive to grow.

Lastly, naturally occurring, pest-protective genes from one crop plant can be inserted into another, thus “sharing the wealth,” as in the recent studies of natural proteinase inhibitors of potatoes and tobacco that were transferred to cotton.  Transferring inhibitors from more than one source increased the resistance of cotton to caterpillar pests because caterpillars quickly develop new proteinases when exposed to one type of inhibitor only.  This stacking technique improved the performance of these GMOs.

By all available evidence, Bt crops are beneficial to farmers.  The supposed failure of Bt cotton in India may be linked to the use of spurious seeds and the planting of cotton in inadequate and under-irrigated soils, which produces failure of all varieties, Bt cotton included.  Farmers who can show crop failure may be able to obtain cash settlements, thus increasing the incidence of claims

Herbicide-resistance This group of GMOs is best known by the “Roundup (glyphosate)  Ready” group that include soybeans, corn, canola, cotton, and, more recently, sugarbeets and wheat.  These crops are modified to resist the use of the herbicide.  The planting of these modified crops allows farmers to use less tillage (another method of weed control that physically removes the weeds), thus reducing soil erosion and assisting in soil conservation.  Studies have also found water contamination of more harmful pre-emergent herbicides is reduced in areas of Roundup Ready crop plantings. Farmers’ production costs are lowered; thus, there has been rapid and widespread adoption of this type of GMO.
Disease-resistance  This area of research in genetic modification is more problematic, and results have been slow.  There has been limited success in genetically modifying organisms that resist bacterial diseases, for example.  Efforts to fight “greening” of Florida oranges, a disease caused by a bacterium that is spread by a tiny insect (psyllid), have been heretofore of limited success.  As the January 10, 2011 article in the New Yorker explains (“We have no bananas”), the drive to save the commercial banana, the Cavendish, from the fungal disease Tropical Race Four is being aided by one group of researchers which successfully inserted a gene from thale cress that resists a related disease, Race One, into another strain of banana.  Early results are promising, but large scale production of resistant strains is still likely years away and it may not outpace the ultimate destruction of the crop worldwide.

Nutritional Augmentation Genetically modified microorganisms are already increasingly used to manufacture vitamins, enzymes, flavors, and other food additives.  Improving the nutritional content of food crops, or biofortification, also may be accomplished by genetic modification.  Most of these food crops are not yet available for use.  An important recent example is “Golden Rice,” which should be ready for release within the year.  Syngenta donated several of its patented technologies to the Golden Rice project for humanitarian purposes, with other biotech companies also making contributions.  Golden Rice is the product of modification of two genes, which enables production of up to 35 micrograms of beta carotene (a precursor of vitamin A) per gram of edible rice.  Rice can make beta-carotene in its leaves, but the modification gives the same ability to the rice grain.  This food is expected to avert blindness and death throughout areas of the third world where rice is the staple. 

via Wikipedia, under Fair Use

The legal hurdles are phenomenal, however. Golden Rice was ready in 1999 and was featured on the cover of Time Magazine (shown above) in 2000 with its co-inventor, Ingo Potrykus.  It is still going through the regulatory process.  As stated by the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board:  “It will take at least until 2011 before the first Golden Rice obtains final regulatory approval and can reach the first group of small holders in a target country.  Considering the enormous humanitarian potential of Golden Rice in reducing blindness (500,000 children per year) and children's deaths (2-3 million per year), it is hardly understandable that lobby groups and the authorities are not learning from the accumulated experience and making the regulatory process more science and experience based.”  Professor Potrykus, a member of that board, addressed the humanitarian issues of such a delay in his opinion piece in the July 2010 issue of Nature. 

In 2009, researchers in Spain, writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), reported they had genetically altered corn to contain 169 times the beta carotene of normal corn, 6-fold the normal amount of vitamin C, and twice the normal amount of folate.  The beta carotene concentration is reportedly five times higher than in Golden Rice.

Transgenic potatoes in India have 60 per cent more protein per gram than conventional potatoes; a medium potato can provide 10% of the daily protein requirement of an adult.  As a surprise bonus, the GM crop also yielded more potatoes per unit area planted. Flavonoid-enhanced tomatoes, increased carotenoids in potato tubers, and increased essential fatty acids in soybeans and canola have also been developed. This area of GM research is developing exponentially so more products should emerge rapidly in the next few years.

Survival in Challenging Soils and Climate The International Rice Research Institute runs its own GM programs.  Traits like efficient water and nitrogen use and tolerance to salinity and flooding are early targets. In September of 2010 an Australian group produced a salt-tolerant form of rice, which traps salt in the root of the plant, preventing its transfer and damage to the more susceptible shoots.

Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) varieties are being tested and should result in increased yields by up to one third.  This allows farmers to grow maize successfully in dry areas that may have been below subsistence levels. This area of GMO development will continue to provide crops that can be grown in areas of greatest need where soils and climate are perennial challenges.

Improvement of Quality and Yield A laudable goal for genetic modification is the improvement of yield as well as quality of the food product.  Yield and flavor-enhanced varieties of GMOs provide a one-two punch and appeal to growers and consumers alike.  Dr. Zachary Lippman of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has modified a single copy of a mutant gene in tomatoes, which has resulted in increased production per plant and simultaneous sweetening of the fruit.  These potent producers are the result of manipulation of the “flower power gene,” known as SFT, which tells the plants how many flowers to make.  This scientific manipulation may lend itself to all kinds of crops, including melons and soybeans.

The Use of Genetically Modified Organisms in Medicine

In human medicine genetic modification of organisms first allowed the manufacture of products which until then could be obtained only in small quantities from a natural source.  In 1982 insulin produced by a genetically altered bacterium was approved for use in humans.  Human growth hormone, factor VIII (for clotting disorders), and interleukin-2 (to fight cancer) are other important examples.  Artemisinin, the world’s most important anti-malarial medicine, which previously could only be naturally sourced from sweet wormwood (Artemesia annua), now can be efficiently synthesized in bacteria, reducing its cost by 90%.  It will be commercially available to victims of malaria by 2012, as reported in the September 28, 2009 issue of The New Yorker in an article about synthetic biology (“A Life of its Own”).

GM plants also have increasing importance in modern medical application.  Tobacco is being used to produce flu vaccine.  Indeed, according to the January 31, 2011 issue of the New Yorker Magazine (“Going Viral”), during the recent fear over a swine flu pandemic, scientists affiliated with the U.S. government adapted the tobacco technique to swine flu vaccine, rapidly accelerating production to about a month from the approximately six months required by the traditional technique using hen’s eggs. Rice is being modified to provide oral cholera vaccine, to orally treat cedar allergy, and to contain reduced protein levels so that it may serve as a nutritional source for renal failure patients who cannot tolerate much protein in their diets.  Several varieties of rice have also been modified to fight iron deficiency anemia by expressing lactoferrin; this rice is also superior nutritionally, having higher available protein for absorption.

The Use of Genetically Modified Organisms in Industry

Plants, including those that are traditionally used for food, are being genetically modified for industrial application.  Potatoes are being engineered to make only one of its usual component starches, amylopectin, which can be utilized in the production of paper and concrete.  Called the Amflora potato, its use was approved for the European Union market in March 2010 by the European Commission.  Maize plants are being engineered to produce enzymes such as Trypzean, a transgenic trypsin that is used in industry

Tobacco may be used in future to remove organic pollutants from the soil in a process called “phytoremediation”.  

Next I will deal with various problems that have arisen through the use genetically modified plants. 

Part 2 of Thelma Lee's article will be posted tomorrow.

In the meantime, your homework? Here is some rice. Imagine it has been genetically engineered to have a cholera vaccine in it. Good thing? It sure sounds like it whether you live in India or Burma or Haiti. Who owns it? Who paid for the research studies of it? Will they give it away in regions prone to cholera outbreaks? Can the genes be transferred to rice plants that weren't genetically engineered? Should we even worry if they could? These are some of the many and varied issues surrounding GMOs.

To see a cure in a grain of rice...

Rice © Srdjan Stefanovic via

is a very amazing thing.

Article text content © Thelma Lee Gross, DVM

Blog introductory and ending comments, no GMO sign and GMO question sign © Bright Nepenthe, 2011

All other images were purchased from iStockphoto and/or are fair use via Wikipedia as noted.

I Hate Blogger, Part the 5124th

I hate Blogger by MartyMadrid

Marty, you and I are on the same page, at least today.


Palate Cleanser #151

Inishowen, Ireland

Photograph by Dave Johnston, Your Shot
This Month in Photo of the Day: Travel and Adventure Photos
Morning sun touches the hills and sand dunes of Inishowen, Ireland.

visual palate cleanser concept © Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On Aging Parents

Mother and Child
Artist Unknown

As some of my readers know, I'm an only child. While I can honestly say that up until now, it's been a picnic being an only, the new realities of being an only child whose aging parents have health concerns have been something of a challenge. Last week I was worried about my dad's health (he's in Seattle most of the time) yet I was forced to choose between visiting him in early June and being here in Miami to keep an eye on my mom, who's having hand surgery, and whose current doctor I feel I have to stay well on top of, because of his prevailing attitude that if you're 72 and still alive at all, clearly you're fine! (Translation: get out of my office! Next patient!) The reality, sadly, is that she really isn't so fine right now. She has lost more than 20 pounds in the past 8 months and let me tell you it was 20 pounds she definitely could not afford to lose. I felt just great having to choose between staying to take care of my mom and going to visit my dad, who's had some serious stuff going on in the past year. I'm so fortunate that my wonderful stepmother is healthy herself, and willing to deal with a sometimes rather obstinate husband and his resistance to the whole healthcare scene, since my father's health has been dicey. I'm equally fortunate that, like me, my stepmother is clearly not going to take the attitude that if you're breathing, you're doing just fine. Because these days, if you're old, let's just say in my experience you have to be ready to fight the good fight.

I still remember that moment, about 7 years ago when I realized my mother had really lost height. She's Irish and from a family rife with autoimmune and osteoporosis issues. But it's a shock when you have that moment of realizing that this person who used to be your height, or going way further back in your mind, who was so big, comforting and warm, is now smaller and frailer than you ever thought possible. And it's even more of a shock when you're trying to get that person decent healthcare, even when you're fortunate enough to be able to do private pay, to find that most general practitioners do not want to take geriatric patients.

After shifting to Medicare, at age 70 my mom was dropped by her GP, who told her to go elsewhere. Given the retirement haven that Florida has typically been, you'd think that there would be a lot of geriatricians down here. I guess there are. But I've called quite a few and they aren't taking new patients. Mom called 13 physicians before finding one who was taking on new patients. I currently find only 78 listed in the the Miami (pop. 2.5M) geographic area HealthGrades listing. That includes her present doctor, who was quite content to have her just "put up with" this painful synovial cyst on the middle finger of her left (writing) hand, which keeps getting larger (the joint keeps trying to stay lubricated!) and more traumatized by her  every day activities from gardening to writing checks to dressing to cooking. 

In frustration, my mother recently admitted she had tried to drain it herself with a sterilized sewing needle and pressure. She was unsuccessful, and lucky it didn't get infected. When I took her to a hand surgeon about two weeks ago, he was scandalized both that it was so large and that she'd tried to drain it herself in frustration because her doctor hadn't referred her timely. He said she was lucky not to have infected the joint with her improvised drainage attempt, because she could have potentially lost the finger. We had cold-called the hand surgeon, without a referral, by the way. Unfortunately, the joint is totally shot, no cartilage left, and rubbing bone on bone. Because of the extent of the damage, the whole joint will have to be resurfaced and the finger will be splinted for at least 3-4 weeks and then she may have to have some physical therapy. Mind you, my mother used to play a concert grand piano that still sits, growing dusty, in her living room. Chopin, Scriabin, Brahms. She played well but has had so much pain in her hands in recent years due to some of her autoimmune issues that she gave up playing. One of my mother's few pleasures in life at this point is her garden, some photos of which have been shown on this same blog. She is, as I said, left handed and so she's really had a lot of pain when she works in the garden. But it's one of the only things that makes her happy so she wouldn't give it up even though it hurts. You can see a little laceration on that cyst/tumor. That was a gardening injury. The hand surgeon told her to cut out the garden stuff until she had it off. So that's only two months in the hottest part of the year when she shouldn't tend her garden. Yeah, I'm sure that's not going to happen. Maybe when it's splinted she won't garden. I hope.

Because they will have to sedate her for the surgery, she had to go for preoperative testing, which was, of course, to be ordered by her regular physician. This appalling doctor, who was steadfastly refusing to even listen to my concerns that she had lost 23 pounds since August and now weighed only 113 lbs at a height of 5' 3", said doing surgery on her finger was a waste and that he could just stick a needle in it and drain it. When I clarified that it was not a regular fluid filled cyst and that it was synovial fluid, which is extremely viscous, and that the joint would have to be resurfaced to help prevent recurrence, he looked at me vacantly (you know, the who the fuck are you look?), obviously surprised I even knew what synovial fluid was. He still ordered the tests since we already had a date for the surgery and hey, it's money in his pocket, right? They can bill Medicare for drawing the blood right in his office. Woohoo, more $$$! Well, I didn't even like how they drew the blood there. Gentle, these people are not. I'm left with this feeling that is oddly like what I feel when I see that I don't like how someone acts with one of my kids when they're sick. Whether it's my youngest child getting sutured, or the oldest being treated too roughly in an ER, it's just that instantaneous "Don't you dare treat them/touch them/ignore them like that!" feeling. That's now the feeling that I have when I see medical people dealing with my mom. It was another one of those moments you remember... the moment when you realize that they really can't do this stuff alone anymore, because it's akin to leaving a baby with wolves.

Now I'm trying to locate a new geriatric physician that she can see asap after her hand surgery. I'm trying different channels to locate someone else on that list of 78 who is competent, has experience with autoimmune disease and who will take her as a new patient. It's kind of pressing because her pre-operative tests elaborated on my concerns about her weight loss. Her blood results are all wonky and even her chest x-ray is a bit of a concern. Does she have pernicious anemia? Some other blood or bone marrow disorder? Why are her RBCs too large and is her hemoglobin in her RBCs too low? And what is up with those kidney values? Is she, ironically since she didn't smoke, still developing emphysema after all the years of secondhand smoke exposure from her parents or is it chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) from years of unprotected respiratory exposure to vermiculite and perlite and mulches in the garden? After having no interest in the emphysematous bullae in both her lungs, (hey, she isn't blue, right?) the practice partner of her present doctor at least was willing to agree that her weight loss was a concern and that the fact that 8 of 24 values on her CBC/SMAC 14 were abnormal is um, yeah, a little worrisome. But hey! She looks good, he said. How old was she, again? he asked. Only 72, I said. Oh, she's fine. She just has to eat more! As the Cynical Nymph would say in emoticons, that earned him the e_e look, and then I got him to take things a little more seriously after reminding him, in my charmingly vociferous fashion, that she was not just some old biddy sitting in his waiting room, with no one to notice if he let her incipient health issues worsen, including the nice cyst on her finger that was now making it difficult for her to do many, many everyday things with her left hand including writing checks to pay people like him. He evidently didn't realize she was left handed. Like pain in either hand is something you, you know, just put up with, because you don't really need your hands or anything when you're old.

We hold that life in the womb is so sacred. Children once here, not so much (especially if you consider what we're willing to spend on them to keep them safe and healthy and all the ways in which we fail at that). And the elderly? After all the Republican talk of death panels under Obamacare, what I can tell you is this- in my conservative state, going to these doctors with my conservative mother, I have been left with the distinct impression that my mother, and elderly people in general, are in everybody's way and that the quicker we get these damn old people gone, the better. After all, they are just weighing down our country, what with all the issues of Medicare and Social Security. They are the unwanted burden. They're getting all these discounts and aren't really paying much in the way of taxes. What good are they? Let's get some new young tax-payers, I mean fetuses, I mean young people. Let's protect them until they're here and then cut 'em loose and hope they grow up to be docile little capitalists.

Well, I may not always get along with my mom. She may listen to Glenn Beck and Brit Hume and Bill O'Reilly and think I'm 'left of Lenin' and at various times have driven me practically insane. But she still deserves to bend her fingers without pain and know why she's losing weight and what's up with her CBC results and her kidneys and her lungs, ya know? They may think she's the unwanted burden but they will be very wrong in trying to treat her that way. She's my mom and I know she deserves better. She going to be getting it, too.

Next Up:

After the long delay due to the above and many, many other things, we will finally have TL's GMO posts up shortly. I'll also be looking at the issue from several angles- hunger, drought, global warming. GMOs seem scary from the angle of monopolies, but if we remove the business angle, we can assure you that GMOs are here to stay. In fact, they may be your best hope for the future. There's the science of GMOs and then the rhetoric and the financial monopoly aspect of GMOs. Thelma-Lee's post will set you straight on the basic science. You'll be better informed by far for having read them...

Corn image by Achim Raschka.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011